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Engaging Diverse Voices through Research & Resources

Key Definitions


A disability is any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions). There are many types of disabilities, such as those that affect a person’s:

  • Vision
  • Movement
  • Thinking
  • Remembering
  • Learning
  • Communicating
  • Hearing
  • Mental health
  • Social relationships

Although “people with disabilities” sometimes refers to a single population, this is actually a diverse group of people with a wide range of needs. Two people with the same type of disability can be affected in very different ways. Some disabilities may be hidden or not easy to see.

Keyword Suggestions

Keep in mind that many words that were commonly used in the past have since become outdated or even offensive. You may encounter these outdated terms in your research, and you may even need to use them in your own searches in order to get a complete view of your topic, especially if your topic is historical in nature. However, please be careful about using these words yourself, especially if you do not identify as part of the community that you are researching.

Terms marked with an asterisk (*) are considered offensive by some people and should only be used for self-identifying or quoting someone who explicitly self-identifies using that term.

Click on the terms below to see related keywords.


people with disabilities(general)
  • children with disabilities
  • disabled* 
  • atypical 
  • abnormal* 
  • crippled*
  • handicapped* 
people without disabilities
  • non-disabled 
  • able-bodied* 
  • legally blind 
  • limited vision 
  • low vision 
  • partially sighted
  • visually impaired*  
people with drug/alcohol additions
  • people with alcoholism 
  • addict*
  • alcoholic*
  • junkie*
  • recovery
  • remission
deaf and hard of hearing 
  • Deaf (with capital when referring to deaf culture/people)
people with congenital disabilities
  • person living with congenital disability 
people with mental illness 
  • mentally ill*
person with intellectual disability
  • mental retardation*
  • people with dwarfism
  • little person 
  • midget* 
wheelchair user
  • person who uses a wheelchair 
  • wheelchair-bound* 
people with autism (also see the Neurodiversity tab in this guide)
  • autism
  • autistic* 
  • retard/retarded *


Historical Context

U.S. Census & Data Collection

This link provides access to the U.S. Census with data focusing on persons with disability.

-Source: U.S. Census Disability Data

Offensive and/or Outdated Terminology

Critical Disability Theory

Critical disability theory refers to a diverse, interdisciplinary set of theoretical approaches. The task of critical disability theory is to analyze disability as a cultural, historical, relative, social, and political phenomenon...The use of “critical disability theory” here intends to capture a broader swath of approaches, including those originating in the field of philosophy. Critical disability theory is a methodology, not a “subject-oriented area of study” (Schalk 2017). As a methodology, the theory "involves scrutinizing not bodily or mental impairments but the social norms that define particular attributes as impairments, as well as the social conditions that concentrate stigmatized attributes in particular populations." (2017) .

Crip Theory

Crip theory began to flourish in the interdisciplinary fields of disability studies and queer theory in the early decades of the 21st century. These fields attend to the complex workings of power and normalization in contemporary cultures, particularly to how institutions of modernity have materialized and sedimented a distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” and to how subjects deemed “abnormal” have contested such ideas. Disability studies pluralizes models for thinking about disability: if a culture of normalization reduces disability to lack or loss and positions disability as always in need of cure, disability studies challenges the singularity of this medical model. Disability studies scholars examine how able-bodied ideologies emerge in and through representation, and how such representations result in a culture of ableism that invalidates disabled experiences. Crip theory, in turn, emerged as a particular mode of doing disability studies, deeply in conversation with queer theory. The pride and defiance of queer culture, with its active reclamation or reinvention of language meant to wound, are matched by the pride and defiance of crip culture. Crip theory, however, is generatively paradoxical, working with and against identity and identification simultaneously. Crip theory affirms lived, embodied experiences of disability and the knowledges (or cripistemologies) that emerge from such experiences; at the same time, it is critical of the ways in which certain identities materialize and become representative to the exclusion of others that may not fit neatly within dominant vocabularies of disability. Many works in crip theory focus on the supposed margins of disability identification as well as on the intersections where gender, race, sexuality, and disability come together. Crip theory, additionally, offers an analytic that can be used for thinking about contexts or historical periods that do not seem on the surface to be about disability at all.

Reference Books

an icon for partial quotation marks Acknowledgment

This guide is inspired by the LibGuides Open Review Discussion Sessions (LORDS) Project and University of Minnesota Libraries' Conducting Research Through an Anti-Racism Lens LibGuide. 

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