Disability Key Terms


Accessibility describes the enabling of persons with disabilities to access, on an equal basis as others, the physical environment; transportation; information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems; and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and rural areas. (CRPD Art. 9)

Accommodation – Reasonable
Reasonable accommodation means necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. (CRPD Art. 2)

Assistive Devices; Assistive Technology
Assistive devices or technology are designed, made or adapted to increase mobility, hearing, vision and communication capacities and enable persons with disabilities participate in society. Products may be specially produced or generally available for people with a disability. (World Health Organization)


Barriers can take a variety of forms, including those relating to the physical environment or to information and communications technology (ICT), or those resulting from legislation or policy, or from societal attitudes or discrimination. The result is that persons with disabilities do not have equal access to society or services, including education, employment, health care, transportation, political participation or justice.


Community living
Community living is realized when persons with disabilities live in the community and participate in society as equal citizens. The focus of community living is to create an enabling social and physical environment so that all persons are able to be included and participate in a community.

Community-based services
These are the range of services and support that enable persons with disabilities to live in the community, participate in community life and to pursue educational and employment opportunities. The range of services include anything required to enable community living and include housing, supported housing, access to mainstream services such as health care, supported employment, day services and care in the family home, social work support, the provision of independent living skills such as teaching on cooking or managing personal finances.

Communication includes languages, display of text, Braille, tactile communication, large print, accessible multimedia as well as written, audio, plain-language, human-reader and augmentative and alternative modes, means and formats of communication, including accessible information and communication technology. (CRPD Art. 2)


This term is used to describe the process of closing or scaling down long-term, residential institutions. Deinstitutionalization should be coupled with the development of community living options in order to be successful by providing alternatives for former residents of institutions.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“CRPD”) does not provide a definition of disabilities, but instead provides a broad description intended to be widely inclusive.  The CRPD explains in Article 1 that ‘persons with disabilities’ includes ‘those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’.  This description of disability shifts the focus towards social and environmental barriers that hinder an individual’s participation in society rather than on the individual’s impairments.

Education – Inclusive
Inclusive education focuses on the right of persons with disabilities to participate in the general education system and to not be discriminated against on the basis of disability. Schools must provide reasonable accommodations and the support required to facilitate the effective education of persons with disabilities. (CRPD Art. 24)

Equalization of Opportunity
Equality of opportunity is one of the general principles of the CRPD listed in Article 3. It is the “process through which the general system of society, such as the physical and cultural environment, housing and transportation, social and health services, educational and work opportunities, cultural and social life, including sports and recreational facilities, are made accessible to all.”1


This term refers to the legal arrangement where the court may deem an individual to lack capacity to make decisions for them self and appoint a person, called the guardian, who the court authorizes to make decisions on the individual’s behalf. Guardianship is also referred to as substituted decision-making. For the human rights-based approach to individual capacity and decision-making, please see “supported decision-making.”


Complete physical, mental, and social well-being rather than merely the absence of disease or infirmity. (World Health Organization)


Any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function.2

Informed consent
A process by which a patient makes informed choices about their own health care and provides consent to the provider to carry out that care. The patient must be provided with adequate and understandable information, including on the treatment’s purpose, alternative treatments, risks, and side-effects, in order for the consent to be valid. Persons with disabilities have the right to provide or withhold informed consent for any and all medical interventions.

An institution is any place in which people who have been labelled as having a disability are isolated, segregated and/or congregated and are denied the opportunity to make decisions about their lives or participate in the community as equal citizens. An institution is not defined merely by its size. While an institution may be a large, long-term residence facility, it is any place in which people do not have, or are not allowed to exercise control over their lives and day to day decisions.

Institutionalization is used to describe the practice of confining a person with a disability to a residential institution, often against their will, and depriving them of their right to live independently and the ability to make decisions about their lives.


“Language” includes spoken and signed languages and other forms of non-spoken languages. (CRPD Art. 2)


Personal Assistant
Persons with disabilities may chose to employ a personal assistant to ensure their independence. Personal assistants are employed by the person with a disability. The person with a disability manages and controls who to hire and fire, and authorizes and manages the type and method of services provided, when services are required, the work schedule, and training of the personal assistant.3


Reasonable accommodation
See “Accommodation – reasonable”

Rehabilitation refers to “a goal-oriented and time-limited process aimed at enabling an impaired person to reach an optimum mental, physical and/or social functional level, thus providing her or him with the tools to change her or his own life. It can involve measures intended to compensate for a loss of function or a functional limitation (for example by technical aids) and other measures intended to facilitate social adjustment or readjustment.”4


Sign Language Interpretation
A sign-language interpreter is a person trained to interpret information from sign language into speech and vice versa. There are many different sign languages across the world.

Social Determinants of Health
Social determinants refer to underlying factors that determines an individual’s health. Social determinants include access to safe and potable water and adequate sanitation; an adequate supply of safe food, nutrition and housing; healthy occupational and environmental conditions; access to health-related education and information, including on sexual and reproductive health; education; availability of social services; and income.

Substituted decision-making
See Guardianship.

Supported decision-making
Supported decision-making is a decision making approach according to which supporters, advocates or established systems may assist an individual with disability to make his or her own decision or express his or her will, provided the supporter, advocate or system is not in conflict of interest or in a position of power or undue influence over the individual. Supported decision making, as opposed to traditional substitute decision-making or guardianship, does not imply a transfer of decision making rights to third a party.


Universal Design
Universal design refers to the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. (CRPD Art. 2)


1 UN Enable, “World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons.” http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=23.

2 UN Enable, “World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons.” http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=23.

3 Independent Living Institute, “Personal Assistance: Key to Independent Living as Illustrated by the Swedish Personal Assistance Act.” http://www.independentliving.org/node/1193.

4 UN Enable, “World Programme of Action Concerning Disabled Persons.” http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=23.