Library: Glossary

Glossary definitions include the historical context of words found in our Collections and used in other Disability History Museum programs.

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NOUN: The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 recognizes and protects the civil rights of people with disabilities and is modeled after earlier landmark laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race and gender. The ADA covers a wide range of disability, from physical conditions affecting mobility, stamina, sight, hearing, and speech to conditions such as emotional illness and learning disorders. The ADA addresses access to the workplace (title I), State and local government services (title II), and places of public accommodation and commercial facilities (title III).

advocacy (ad·vo·ca·cy)
NOUN: The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.

affliction (af·flic·tion)
NOUN: 1.) A condition of pain, suffering, or distress.
2.) A cause of pain, suffering, or distress. During the nineteenth century, a disability was commonly referred to as an "affliction" and implied divine intervention in people's lives.

almshouse (alms·house)
NOUN: A home for the poor that was financed and managed by private charity or local government. The term went out of fashion during the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. Almshouses were replaced by settlement houses and other institutions. Today, many of the functions of an almshouse are provided by homeless shelters.

assistive technology (as·sis·tive  tech·nol·o·gy)
NOUN: Any device or system, simple or complex, designed to help a person with a disability to perform various tasks and activities. The term came into common use during the 1970s.

asylum (a·sy·lum)
NOUN: An institution for the care and/or education of people, especially those with physical or mental impairments, who were thought to require organized supervision or special methods of assistance. The word also suggests a sanctuary or refuge from the outside world. By the late nineteenth century, institutions that began as asylums had changed their names from asylum to hospital, school, or institute.

attendant (at·ten·dant)
NOUN: One who attends or assists another. In terms of disability, an attendant can be a personal caregiver or a worker in a public or private institution. In the hierarchy of prestige and wages at an institution, doctors were at the top and attendants were at the bottom. Attendants, on the other hand, were those in closest and most frequent contact with people with disabilities. In a private setting, the term personal attendant is commonly used.

autism (au·tism)
NOUN: According to the Autism Society of America, autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. The result of a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, autism and its associated behaviors have been estimated to occur in as many as 2 to 6 in 1,000 individuals (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2001). Autism is four times more prevalent in boys than girls and knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities.


benevolence (be·nev·o·lence)
NOUN: An inclination to perform kind, charitable acts. The DHM uses the term to refer to the various efforts of people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to do good. Benevolence exerted a deep moral and religious resonance in American Protestant cultural life, and though it continues today, the DHM uses the word as an historical term.

bioethics (bi·o·eth·ics)
NOUN: The study of the ethical and moral implications of new biological discoveries and biomedical advances, as in the fields of genetic engineering, experimental surgery, and drug research. Bioethics looks at matters of right and wrong as they arise in the biomedical sciences.

bipolar disorder (bi·polar  dis·order)
NOUN: According to the American Psychiatric Association, bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is characterized by moods that alternate between mania (feeling indestructible, hyperactive and overly self-confident) and depression (feeling intensely sad and hopeless). The periods of mania and depression vary in length and are unpredictable. Periods of mania usually follow longer periods of depression.

black lung
NOUN: According to the American Lung Association, black lung disease, also known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is caused by the inhalation of coal dust. An estimated 4.5 percent of coal miners are affected; about 0.2 percent have scarring on the lungs, the most severe form of the disease. Between 1990 and 1999 there were more than 10,000 deaths and annual death counts increase by one-third.

NOUN: An orthopedic appliance used to support, align, or hold a bodily part in the correct position.

NOUN: A system of embossed characters formed by using a Braille cell, a combination of six dots consisting of two vertical columns of three dots each. Each simple Braille character is formed by one or more of these dots and occupies a full cell or space. Some Braille may have eight dots. Invented by Louis Braille of France in the 1820s, Braille replaced embossed print.


cabinet card (cab·i·net  card)
NOUN: A paper photographic print mounted on a commercially produced mounting card, most popular during the 1880s. The dimensions of the standard Cabinet Card are 6 1/2" x 4 1/2".

carte de visite (carte  de  vi·site)
NOUN: A small visiting card with mounted photographs, usually measuring 4 1/2" x 2 1/2", popular during the 1860s and 1870s.

cerebral palsy (cer·e·bral  pal·sy)
NOUN: According to United Cerebral Palsy, cerebral palsy is a term used to describe a group of chronic conditions affecting body movement and muscle coordination. It is caused by damage to one or more specific areas of the brain, usually occurring during fetal development; before, during, or shortly after birth; or during infancy. Thus, these disorders are not caused by problems in the muscles or nerves. Instead, faulty development or damage to motor areas in the brain disrupt the brain's ability to adequately control movement and posture. "Cerebral" refers to the brain and "palsy" to muscle weakness/poor control. Cerebral palsy itself is not progressive (i.e. brain damage does not get worse); however, secondary conditions, such as muscle spasticity, can develop which may get better over time, get worse, or remain the same. Cerebral palsy is not communicable. It is not a disease and should not be referred to as such.

charity (char·i·ty)
NOUN: A moral and/or religious duty of the individual to help those in need. The DHM uses the term to describe the efforts of private individuals or organizations to help people with disabilities in any capacity -- medical research, independent living, education, employment, etc.

cognitive disability (cog·ni·tive  dis·a·bil·i·ty)
NOUN: Any disability which is related to the mental processes of knowing, including aspects such as awareness, attention, memory, perception, reasoning, and judgment.

confidentiality (con·fi·den·ti·al·i·ty)
NOUN: The practice of discretion in keeping information private or secret. For example, medical authorities are often by law prohibited from revealing the medical records of their patients.

confinement (con·fine·ment)
NOUN: The act of holding a person against his or her will; the state of being held against ones will. To imprison or to be imprisoned. People with disabilities have historically been confined in various sorts of institutions.

conscientious objectors (con·sci·en·tious  ob·ject·or)
NOUN: Persons who, by reason of religious, ethical, or moral belief, are conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form. These people may be discharged from military service. They are exempt from military service, in the event of a draft. If called up, they may perform alternative service as civilians.

cripple (crip·ple)
NOUN: A person that is partially disabled or unable to use a limb or limbs. The term came to refer to any person with a disability. The term was commonly used in the vernacular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and up to the 1970s but is now considered offensive.


defective (de·fec·tive)
ADJECTIVE/NOUN: In the DHM, defective refers to a term used in the past to describe a person who was physically or mentally deficient. It was commonly used in the vernacular to describe a wide range of people between 1870 and 1930 and was related to the American eugenics movement. Now considered offensive.

deinstitutionalization (de·in·sti·tu·tion·al·i·za·tion)
NOUN: The release (of a person with a psychiatric disability, for example) from an institution for placement and care in the community. Also the movement, begun in the 1960s with the public exposure of horrific conditions, to end the practice of confining people with psychiatric and cognitive disabilities in large, impersonal, and often abusive institutions.

developmental disability (dev·el·op·men·tal  dis·a·bil·i·ty)
NOUN: A mental or physical disability, such as cerebral palsy or autism, arising before age 22 and usually lasting throughout life.

dime museum (dime  mu·se·um)
NOUN: Beginning in the eighteenth century as a "cabinet of curiosities," this was an institution where Americans learned about natural history, "oddities," and human difference. Part entertaining, part educational, the dime museum achieved its purest example in P.T. Barnum's American Museum.

Down Syndrome (down  syn·drome)
NOUN: Also Down's Syndrome. According to the National Down Syndrome Society, Down Syndrome is caused by the presence of an extra 21st chromosome. This additional genetic material alters the course of development and causes the characteristics associated with the syndrome. Those characteristics include a mild to moderate developmental disability, low muscle tone, short stature, and a flattened facial profile.

ADJECTIVE: In its past usage, dumb was a synonym for mute, or unable to speak. In its early nineteenth-century usage, it did not automatically reflect anything about mental or intellectual abilities. An example of its continuing use is the expression "dumb struck." It is now considered offensive.


electro-shock therapy (e·lec·tro-shock  ther·a·py)
NOUN: Also know as electroconvulsive therapy. The administration of electric current to the brain through electrodes placed on the head in order to induce seizure activity in the brain, used in the treatment of certain mental disorders, especially severe depression.

eleemosynary (el·ee·mos·y·nar·y)
ADJECTIVE: 1.) Of, relating to, or dependent on charity.
2.) Contributed as an act of charity; gratuitous.

embossed print (em·bossed  print)
NOUN: Raised letters, used to make books accessible for blind people in the early nineteenth century. Embossed print was replaced by Braille in the second half of the nineteenth century.

epilepsy (ep·i·lep·sy)
NOUN: According to the Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy is a neurological condition that makes people susceptible to seizures. A seizure is a change in sensation, awareness, or behavior brought about by a brief electrical disturbance in the brain. Seizures vary from a momentary disruption of the senses, to short periods of unconsciousness or staring spells, to convulsions.

euthanasia (eu·tha·na·sia)
NOUN: The act or practice of ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal illness or an incurable condition, as by lethal injection or the suspension of extraordinary medical treatment.


field hospital (field  hos·pi·tal)
NOUN: A hospital established on a temporary basis to serve troops in a combat zone.


group home
NOUN: In the DHM, a group home refers to a small supervised residential facility, as for people with psychiatric or cognitive disabilities, in which residents typically participate in daily tasks and are often free to come and go on a voluntary basis.


humbug (hum·bug)
NOUN: 1.) Something intended to deceive; a hoax or fraud.
2.) A person who claims to be other than what he or she is; an impostor.
3.) Nonsense; rubbish.
4.) Pretense; deception.

hydropathy (hy·drop·a·thy)
NOUN: Hydropathy was a health reform that promoted frequent bathing and moderate exercise. Also known as water cure, hydropathy became fashionable in the North before the Civil War.

hydrotherapy (hy·dro·ther·a·py)
NOUN: The external use of water, including warm or hot water, in the medical treatment of certain diseases or conditions. Franklin Roosevelt received hydrotherapy at Warm Springs, Georgia.


idiocy (id·i·o·cy)
NOUN: In the DHM, idiocy refers to the term used by psychologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to describe a person with a significant cognitive disability. The term is no longer used as a scientific term and is considered offensive in contemporary usage.

indigent (in·di·gent)
ADJECTIVE/NOUN: Adjective - Experiencing want or need; impoverished.
Noun - A needy or destitute person.

iron lung
NOUN: An airtight metal tank that encloses all of the body except the head and forces the lungs to inhale and exhale through regulated changes in air pressure. Philip Drinker, a medical researcher at Harvard, invented the first iron lung in 1927. He used an iron box and two vacuum cleaners. The device increased the survival rate of polio patients. The iron lung has been replaced by the respirator.


jurisprudence (ju·ris·pru·dence)
NOUN: 1.) The philosophy or science of law.
2.) A division or department of law: medical jurisprudence.


leprosy (lep·ro·sy)
NOUN: According to the World Health Organization, leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae, an acid-fast, rod-shaped bacillus. The disease mainly affects the skin, the peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract and also the eyes, apart from some other structures. Its most apparent symptom is skin lesions. People with leprosy have historically been isolated from the general population.


memorial (me·mo·ri·al)
NOUN: 1.) Something, such as a monument or holiday, intended to celebrate or honor the memory of a person or an event.
2.) A written statement of facts or a petition presented to a legislative body or an executive.

microcephaly (mi·cro·ceph·a·ly)
NOUN: Anomalous smallness of the head, usually accompanied by varying degrees of cogntive disability. People with microcephaly were popular in the freak shows of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

moral literature (mor·al  lit·er·a·ture)
NOUN: Literature, very popular during the first half of the nineteenth century, which mixed religion and sentiment to instill in its readers middle-class notions of morality. It was produced by both religious and commercial publishers.

moron (mo·ron)
NOUN: According to psychologists of the past, a moron was a person with a cognitive disability having a mental age of from 7 to 12 years according to the Binet intelligence tests. Such a person generally had communication and social skills enabling some degree of academic or vocational education. The term, coined by H.H. Goddard in 1910, belongs to a classification system no longer in use and is now considered offensive.

muscular dystrophy (mus·cu·lar  dys·tro·phy)
NOUN: According to the Muscular Dystrophy Family Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy (MD) is the common name for several progressive hereditary diseases that cause muscles to weaken and degenerate. It is not contagious, and there are many kinds of MD. Each type has its own hereditary pattern, age of onset and rate of muscle loss.

ADJECTIVE: Unable to speak. Mute was the most common way of describing a deaf person in the nineteenth century. In reference to people who are unable to speak, mute and deaf-mute are now often considered objectionable.


nativism (na·tiv·ism)
NOUN: A sociopolitical policy, especially in the United States in the 19th century, favoring the interests of established inhabitants over those of immigrants.

neurasthenia (neu·ras·the·ni·a)
NOUN: A psychological condition characterized by chronic fatigue and weakness, loss of memory, and generalized aches and pains, formerly thought to result from exhaustion of the nervous system. The term was introduced into psychiatry in 1869 by G. M. Beard, an American neurologist. Used by Sigmund Freud to describe a fundamental disorder in mental functioning, the term was incorrectly applied to almost any psychoneurosis. No longer in scientific use.

newsboy (news·boy)
NOUN: A boy who sells or delivers newspapers. During the nineteenth century, newsboys were invariably impoverished and sometimes had a disability.

nomenclature (no·men·cla·ture)
NOUN: The procedure of assigning names to the kinds and groups of organisms listed in a taxonomic classification. In terms of disability, nomenclature refers to ways in which people with disabilities have historically been classified.


occupational therapy (oc·cu·pa·tion·al  ther·a·py)
NOUN: According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, occupational therapy is skilled treatment that helps individuals achieve independence in all facets of their lives. It gives people the "skills for the job of living" necessary for independent and satisfying lives. Services typically include customized treatment programs to improve one's ability to perform daily activities, comprehensive home and job site evaluations with adaptation recommendations, performance skills assessments and treatment, adaptive equipment recommendations and usage training, and guidance to family members and caregivers.

oralism (o·ral·ism)
NOUN: The theory or practice of teaching hearing-impaired or deaf persons to communicate by means of spoken language.


pauper (pau·per)
NOUN: 1.)One who is extremely poor.
2.)One living on or eligible for public charity.

phenylketonuria (phen·yl·ke·to·nu·ri·a)
NOUN: A genetic condition in which the body lacks the enzyme necessary to metabolize phenylalanine to tyrosine. Left untreated, the condition can cause brain damage and a progressive cognitive disability as a result of the accumulation of phenylalanine and its breakdown products. Also known as PKU.

philanthropy (phi·lan·thro·py)
NOUN: The effort or inclination to increase the well-being of humankind by organizations or by expansive charitable giving. The DHM uses the term to describe organizational efforts to improve human welfare.

physical therapy (phys·i·cal  ther·a·py)
NOUN: The treatment of muscular or skeletal conditions by using massage, exercise, water, light, heat, etc., Although physical therapy is a licensed allied health profession, its practitioners may use techniques that are either traditional or modern. Also called physiotherapy.

polio (po·li·o)
NOUN: Poliomyelitis. A highly infectious viral disease that chiefly affects children and, in its acute forms, causes inflammation of motor neurons of the spinal cord and brainstem, leading to paralysis, muscular atrophy, and often deformity. Through vaccination, the disease is preventable. Also called infantile paralysis.

poorhouse (poor·house)
NOUN: Tax-supported residential institutions to which indigent people were required to go if they could not support themselves. They were started as a method of providing a less expensive (to the taxpayers) alternative to what was called "outdoor relief." People requested help from the community Overseer of the Poor, an elected town official. If the need was great or likely to be long-term, they were sent to the poorhouse instead of being given relief. After the Social Security Act of 1935 many poorhouses evolved into rest homes or nursing homes.

prosthesis (pros·the·sis)
NOUN: 1.)An artificial device used to replace a missing body part, such as a limb, tooth, eye, or heart valve.
2.)Replacement of a missing body part with such a device.

public health (pub·lic  health)
NOUN: The science and practice of protecting and improving the health of a community, as by preventive medicine, health education, control of communicable diseases, application of sanitary measures, and monitoring of environmental hazards

public welfare (pub·lic  wel·fare)
NOUN: Legislation, policy, and the administration by governments -- local, state, and federal -- of economic support for persons without financial means. Public assistance.


rickets (rick·ets)
NOUN: A disease resulting from a lack of vitamin D or calcium and from insufficient exposure to sunlight, characterized by unusual bone growth. It occurred chiefly in children and was much reduced by enriching various foods with vitamins. Also called rachitis.


sanitarium (san·i·tar·i·um)
NOUN: 1.) An institution for the treatment of chronic diseases or for medically supervised recuperation.
2.) A resort for improvement or maintenance of health, especially for convalescents.

sensory disability (sen·so·ry  dis·a·bil·i·ty)
NOUN: Any disability related to impairments of the senses of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting.

service organization (ser·vice  or·gan·i·za·tion)
NOUN: A private, non-governmental organization that seeks to provide services to specific populations.

sheltered workshop (shel·tered  work·shop)
NOUN: A workplace that provides an environment where people with physical, sensory, or mental disabilities can acquire job skills and vocational experience. The wage scale in such a workplace is usually below market rates and often below minimum wage. Sheltered workshops, such as those organized by Goodwill, Inc., have been criticized by disability rights activists as unfair and detrimental to the full social inclusion of people with disabilities.

sign language (sign  lan·guage)
NOUN: A language that uses a system of visual hand gestures facial expressions, and other body movements as the means of communication, especially among deaf people. It is the third most commonly used language in the United States.

social hygiene (so·cial  hy·giene)
NOUN: Used during the Progessive Era, social hygiene referred to efforts to control venereal diseases, promote sex education, and reduce commercialized prostitution. Social hygiene focuses on sex as a factor in human life, and includes such issues as marriage, divorce, and illegitimacy. It became a professional field in the late nineteenth century.

social welfare (so·cial  wel·fare)
NOUN: The development and implementation of social policies by professionals during the twentieth century. The term includes both public and private efforts to address perceived social problems and includes all aspects of what is called "social work."

spina bifida (spi·na  bif·i·da)
NOUN: A congenital anomaly in which the spinal column is imperfectly closed so that part of the meninges or spinal cord protrudes, often resulting in hydrocephalus and other neurological conditions. It affects approximately one out of every 1,000 newborns in the United States.

spiritualism (spir·i·tu·al·ism)
NOUN: 1.) The belief that the dead communicate with the living, as through a medium. The practices or doctrines of those holding such a belief.
2.) A philosophy, doctrine, or religion emphasizing the spiritual aspect of being.

sterilization (ster·il·i·za·tion)
NOUN: The act of making an organism barren or infertile (unable to reproduce), often done through surgery.


temperance (tem·per·ance)
NOUN: Habitual moderation in regard to the indulgence of the natural appetites and passions; restrained or moderate indulgence; moderation; as, temperance in eating and drinking; temperance in the indulgence of joy or mirth; specifically, moderation, and sometimes abstinence, in respect to using intoxicating liquors.

NOUN: A leaflet or pamphlet containing a declaration or appeal, especially one put out by a religious or political group.


universal design (u·ni·ver·sal  de·sign)
NOUN: The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

utilitarianism (u·til·i·tar·i·an·ism)
NOUN: 1.) The belief that the value of a thing or an action is determined by its utility.
2.) The ethical theory proposed by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
3.) The quality of being utilitarian: housing of bleak utilitarianism.


venereal disease (ve·ne·re·al  dis·ease)
NOUN: A sexually transmitted disease.

vocational rehabilitation (vo·ca·tion·al  re·ha·bi·li·ta·tion)
NOUN: Providing training in a specific trade or profession with the aim of gaining employment