Special Needs Terminology

Please choose a letter:

A – B   |   C – D   |   E – G   |   H – L   |   M – O   |   P – S  |   T – Z


Achievement/Ability Discrepancy
A criterion sometimes used to determine whether a child has a learning disability. Ability/achievement discrepancy is a predecessor to Response to Intervention (Rti)It asks whether the child working up to expectations. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provides for the protection from discrimination of persons with disabilities and provides claims for compensatory and punitive damages.

Adaptive Behavior
Measured by scales that demonstrates how well a person manages within his or her own environment.

ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder
A condition identified as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III-Revised (DSM III-R). This condition is also often called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). People with ADHD are easily distracted by sights and sounds in their environment and cannot concentrate for long periods of time. They may be restless and impulsive, have a tendency to daydream, or be sluggish to a complete task.

An individual who is not an attorney, but who assists parents and children in their dealings with school districts regarding the children’s special education programs.

A term which refers to emotions and attitudes, as in “affective disorder.”

Alternate Standard Educational Program
Refers to one of numerous options which can exist within a school’s standard curriculum mediating the need for students to be served in a special education class.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against capable individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, advancement, hiring, firing, compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.

ARC (The Arc)
Advocates for the Rights of Citizens with Developmental Disabilities and their families. ARC is an association that supports the rights and full participation of all people with developmental disabilities.

A developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and it is diagnosed by impairments to social interaction, communication, interests, imagination and activities.

Return to Top


CD – Communication Disorders
A problem in communication and in related areas such as speech, language and hearing.

Case Manager
An individual charged with coordinating and connecting support services, including resources for children with special needs and their families. Case management services can occur in schools, health care settings, child care facilities and communities.

Refers to a term which indicates a person’s internal mental processes or intellectual capacity.

A standard by which special education services may be monitored. Skills are taught at different locations in the community rather than in the classroom in order to facilitate generalization and application.

Continuum of services
Refers to the variety of services which must be accessible to the students of a school district so that they may be served in the least restrictive environment.

Derogatory term no longer acceptable to be used. Other unacceptable terms include handicapped, retarded and slow.

Cued speech
Method of communication used by some persons with hearing impairments. It is used to diminish the ambiguities involved in lip reading. This method has caused much controversy. The question is whether the best method is to teach deaf children to rely on oral methods of communication or to use sign language.

DD – Developmental Disability
Disabilities which affect daily functioning in areas such as mobility, learning, self-care, communication and self-direction.

Developmental Delay
Describes a child’s cognitive, physical, communication, social-emotional or adaptive/self help abilities which are at a level that is less than typical peers of a similar age. In these instances, a developmental assessment is conducted to evaluate the level of delay.

Refers to a physical, sensory, cognitive or affective impairment that causes the student to need special education. NOTE: There are significant differences in the definitions of disability in IDEA and Section 504.

DH – Developmentally Handicapped
When a person’s intellectual functioning is significantly below average. – No longer used.

Return to Top


E.D.G.A.R. Complaint
A grievance filed with a state agency under rules promulgated as (federal) Education Department General Administrative Regulations (EDGAR) that requires each state to have a means for receiving reports from the public that federal laws are being violated.

EHA – Education for All Handicapped Children Act
More commonly recognized as P.L. 94-142. It became effective in 1975 and has been drastically modified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1977).

EMH – “Educably Mentally Handicapped”
An eligibility category under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that includes children whose cognitive development is approximately one-half to three-fourths the standard rate and is accompanied by comparable delays in adaptive behavior. – No longer used (see Intellectual Disability)

Family Centered Care (FCC)
Assures the health and well-being of children and their families through a mutually respectful family-professional partnership. It honors the strengths, cultures, traditions and knowledge that each participant brings to this relationship.

FERPA – Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
A federal law that controls the administration of student records and disclosure of any information from those records. The Act has its own administrative enforcement mechanism.

FAPE – “Free Appropriate Public Education
Providing public education as well as services and modification to students with disabilities with no additional financial commitment.

Fine Motor Movement
Very small muscle movements. For example, writing or typing would require fine motor movement.

Functional curriculum
A set of courses focused on realistic skills. It is usually taught in community-based settings with tangible materials that are a normal part of everyday life. The purpose of this type of instruction is to help the student take full advantage of his/her skills and to be able to generalize them to real-life use.

Genetic Services
Include evaluation, diagnosis, follow-up and treatment for inherited disorders and birth defects. They include a full review of the family and its medical history, physical examination, counseling, education, laboratory testing, and recommendations for appropriate management of any findings. Services offer individuals and families information about inherited disorders, how genetic conditions are passed on, and the risks that a condition will affect other family members.

Gross Motor Movement
Large muscle movements. For example, walking or running would require gross motor movement.

Return to Top


Derogatory term no longer deemed acceptable.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
Offers rights and protections for participants and beneficiaries in group health plans. HIPAA includes protections for coverage under group health plans that limit exclusions for preexisting conditions; prohibit discrimination against employees and dependents based on their health status, and permit a special opportunity to enroll in a new plan to individuals under certain circumstances.

Health Maintenance Organization (HMO)
A managed health care plan, public or private, that provides health care services to their members through networks of doctors, hospitals and other health care providers.

HI – Hearing Impaired
A condition in which individuals are partially or completely unable to perceive frequencies of sound which can normally be heard by others.

IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
A modification and extension of the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHA).

IEP – Individualized Education Plan
The arrangement developed at an IEP meeting which sets the standard by which subsequent special education services are deemed to be appropriate.

IFSP – Individual Family Service Plan
A document that summarizes the services to be delivered to families of infants and toddlers receiving special needs care.

IHP – Individual Health Plan
A document that delineates the health care to be offered in the school setting. This plan is created by the school nurse in collaboration with parents.

IRB – Institutional Review Board
A committee that formally approves, monitors and reviews research with the intent of protecting the rights and welfare of those who take part in the studies.

Intellectual Disability
Children with this type of disability have below-average intellectual ability. They may also have poor communication, self-care and social skills.

LD – Learning Disability
A classification that includes several disorders in which a person has difficulty learning in a typical manner. The disability is usually caused by an unknown disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive and process information.

Return to Top


Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB)
A federal organization that offers national leadership in partnership with states, communities, public-private partners, and families to strengthen the maternal and child health infrastructure. The bureau guarantees the availability of medical homes and builds necessary resources in order to assure a sustained improvement in the health, safety, and well-being of the maternal and child health population.

MDC – “Multi-Disciplinary Conference”
A required assembly under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It is the only body that can make certain disability-related determinations, particularly those regarding a child’s eligibility for special education programs.

Natural Environment
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that services be provided in a child’s normal environment, which includes places where a child typically lives, works or plays.

NORD – National Organization for Rare Disorders
An organization that is devoted to serving people with uncommon diseases through programs of education, advocacy, research, and service.

Occupational Therapy (OT)
A special education-related service which is usually focused upon the development of a student’s fine motor skills. It may also address the identification of adapted ways of accomplishing activities (e.g. modifying clothing so a person without hands can dress himself or herself).

Return to Top


PWD – Person with Disability
Refers to a person that has a physical, sensory, cognitive or affective impairment.


A notice to a school district that a child may require special education. A referral puts certain timelines in place.

Regression is the amount of loss of skills a child experiences over an instructional break (e.g. summer vacation). Recoupment is the amount of time it takes him/her to recover those lost skills.

Related Services
The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) requires that school districts offer any necessary services, except medical care, that a child may require in order to benefit from his or her special education program.

Resource Placement
Refers to a special education placement for a child with special needs during the school day. Such a classroom is usually called a “resource room.”

Respite Care
A service provided to the families of children that need extraordinary forms of care. Respite care is provided so that the family can have some relief from the demands of caring for the child with special needs.

Section 504
A provision of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibits recipients of federal funds from discrimination against persons with disabilities.

SSA – Social Security Administration
A federal program that administers a retirement program and other programs including supplemental security income (SSI).

SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance)
A payroll tax-funded, federal insurance program of the United States government designed to provide income to people who are unable to work because of a disability.

SSI – Social Security Income
A monthly federally-funded stipend provided to aged (legally deemed to be 65 or older), blind, or disabled persons based on need.

Supplementary aids and services
Accommodations which could permit a student to profit from instruction in the least restrictive environment. These services are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

Return to Top


TMH – “Trainably Mentally Handicapped”
An eligibility category under Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). The category includes children whose cognitive development is approximately one-fourth to one-half the average rate and is accompanied by similar delays in adaptive behavior. See EMH – Educably Mentally Handicapped. – No longer used (see Intellectual Disability)

Transition planning
Encompasses planning for the post-school life of an adolescent individual with special needs. This transition must begin by age 14 and involves preparation of a document called an Individual Transition Program (ITP). Good practice may involve planning for earlier transitions as well as incorporating such plans into the child’s IEP.

Telecommunication Device for the Deaf

Telecommunication Device for Deaf, Hearing Impaired, and Speech Impaired Persons

VI – Visually Impaired
Vision loss of a person to a degree that requires additional support.

Return to Top