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A Disclaimer
Definitions are a natural way to begin to understand a disability.  When a parent learns that their child will be born with a disability, many run to get a definition or a quick answer to help them prepare for what might be expected. 
But....Don't let a definition be your only knowledge!
I really hesitated when the suggestion was made to include definitions on this website.  I personally find definitions of disabilities distasteful.  Why?  Definitions tend to put people in categories and gives us the impression that a group is all the same.  Anyone who has ever worked with persons with autism knows how inaccurate this is.  You could have a group of children with autism and each child could be different in their abilities, behavior and needs.  More important than learning a clinical definition about a type of disability, it is essential to understand the person who has both abilities and needs.  Only then will we recognize the complete personhood of those who have a disability and recognize how we can assist them to be more and more integrated into our church and our society.

This is very important in ministry... We must become the learner... someone who seeks to know and understand the person and not just a definition of one aspect of a person.

So... Treat these definitions only as a starting point!

Please contact me with terms you would like added to this list or if you have questions about a new term you hear... there are always new ones and ones that seem to conflict!  Dennis McNulty

Definitions of Disabilities
(Several of these are based on the I.D.E.A. 

See I.D.E.A, below, for explanation of what it is.)



What is Autism?
Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects an individual's social interaction and communication. It is known as a 'spectrum disorder', because it affects each individual in different ways and to varying degrees - thus, the characteristics fall into a broad 'spectrum' of possibilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism and its associated behaviors may be estimated to occur in as many as 1 in 150 individuals. Overall, the incidence of autism is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls, and typically appears during the first three years of life. In general, children and adults with autism tend to have difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communications, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.


What Causes Autism?
Despite a great deal of research, at this point there is no single known cause for autism. However, it is generally agreed that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans have shown differences in the shape and structure of the brain in children with autism when compared to those without the condition. Researchers are investigating a number of theories, including a link between heredity, genetics, and birth-related medical problems. Psychological factors are not believed to be a cause of autism.


How is Autism Treated?
Experts agree that early intervention is important in addressing the symptoms associated with autism, and that much can be done to improve a child's chances of functioning better in social situations with regular attention from early intervention professionals. Most professionals also agree that individuals with autism respond well to highly structured, specialized education programs that are designed to meet the individual's particular needs.


As in any treatment plan, it is important for family members and treatment providers to work together to address and reinforce areas of social skill development, communication, behavior, and sensory integration.


Cognitive Disability / Intellectual Disability (Mental retardation): Significantly sub average general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior. And manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a child's educational performance. You may want to consider other definitions such as the one presented by the American Association of Intellectual and other Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD).


Deafness: A hearing impairment so severe that the child cannot understand what is being said even with a hearing aid.


Deaf-blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments causing such severe communication, develop-mental, and educational problems that the child cannot be accommodated in either a program specifically for the deaf or a program specifically for the blind.


Environmental Sensitivities:  also known as Environmental Illness or Environmental Disease is a name that says it all. A person who is ill because of his environment (food, drink, air) has Environmental Sensitivities. Some people consider Multiple Chemical Sensitivities as another name for the same illness, but it is actually a subset of Environmental Illness. The body cannot deal with all the toxins it comes into contact with every day. Immune System Dysfunction happens. Auto-immune Disease is the body mistaking a part of itself as the enemy and attacking it.


Hearing impairment: An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child's educational performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness as listed above.


I.D.E.A:  What is it?  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law mandating that all children with disabilities have available to them a free, appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living (P.L. 105-17, 1997)


Multiple disabilities: A combination of impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, or mental retardation-physical disabilities) that causes such severe educational problems that the child cannot be accommodated in a special education program solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.


Orthopedic impairment: A severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects educational performance. The term includes impairments such as amputation, absence of a limb, cerebral palsy, poliomyelitis, and bone tuberculosis.


Other health impairment: Having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, due to chronic or acute health problems such as a heart condition, rheumatic fever, asthma, hemophilia, and leukemia, which adversely affect educational performance.


Serious emotional disturbance: A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics, displayed over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual,    sensory, or health factors

  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers or teachers

  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances

  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression

  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

This term includes schizophrenia, but does not include students who are socially maladjusted, unless they have a serious emotional disturbance. P.L. 105-17, the IDEA Amendments of 1997, changed "serious emotional disturbance" to "emotional disturbance." The change has no substantive or legal significance. It is intended strictly to eliminate any negative connotation of the term "serious."


Specific learning disability: A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. This term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. This term does not include children who have learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; mental retardation; or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.


Speech or language impairment: A communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child's educational performance.


Traumatic brain injury: An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or brain injuries induced by birth trauma. As with autism, traumatic brain injury (TBI) was added as a separate category of disability in 1990 under P.L. 101-476.


Visual impairment, including blindness: An impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.






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Last Update to this page was March 15, 2011

Copyright 2006 Dennis C. McNulty