American Association for the Advancement of Science
Roadmaps & Rampways


The international symbol of disability - a gender-free wheelchair rider - is a valuable symbol used to indicate quickly and clearly that entrances and exits, restrooms, parking spaces, public accommodations, and transportation are accessible. However, it has led most people to associate the term "disability" with severe conditions that are readily apparent. This is a common misconception, and it misrepresents the very wide range of disabilities, visible and invisible, experienced by 52 million Americans. The Roadmaps students, with their spectrum of disabilities, illustrate and reinforce that point. In addition to the brief definitions provided here, individual profiles include more detailed descriptions of less well known disabilities. It is important to remember that disabilities vary greatly from individual to individual, so two individuals with the same disability label may have different levels of function and require different accommodations.

  • Asthma. A chronic lung disease that involves periods of breathlessness, labored breathing, wheezing, and other symptoms that can occur in children and adults. Symptoms can vary spontaneously but can be well controlled with medical treatment.
  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A condition that usually involves inattention, impulsivity, or hyperactivity that adversely affects an individual's ability to function in school and other settings. ADHD can occur in children and adults.
  • Blindness. A visual acuity not greater than 20/200 in the better eye with corrective lenses, or a visual field not subtending an angle greater than 20 degrees.
  • Retinoblastoma. The most common form of eye cancer in children and one cause of blindness, it occurs in about 1 out of every 15,000 births.
  • Cancer. A general term for more than 100 different diseases that involve abnormal growth of cells that invade and destroy nearby normal tissue and often spread to other parts of the body.
  • Celiac Sprue. A metabolic disorder caused by sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in wheat and certain other grains. It impairs absorption of food in the digestive track resulting in abdominal bloating, weight loss, and other symptoms. Individuals with celiac disease must avoid all foods that contain gluten.
  • Cerebral Palsy. A general term for brain damage that occurs before, during, or soon after birth that involves loss of voluntary muscle control, often speech, and other symptoms. A person with cerebral palsy may have a mild or significant involvement.
  • Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Hearing Impairment. Terms that encompass a range of communication disabilities, coping strategies, and lifestyles. Hard-of-hearing individuals are those who require amplification of sounds but can still hear conversations with their backs turned to a speaker. Individuals who are deaf cannot hear conversation, but they may use lipreading supplemented by auditory input from technically advanced hearing aids or cochlear implants.
  • Double-Leg Amputee. An individual whose legs are partially or totally amputated. Generally the person wears prostheses.
  • Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The most common and severe type of muscular dystrophy, it involves a rapidly progressive loss of muscle function. Other types of muscular dystrophy progress more slowly.
  • Dyslexia. One of the most common learning disabilities, it usually involves difficulties with language processing that impact reading, writing, and spelling.
  • Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP). A rare genetic disorder, also known as myositis ossificans progressiva, in which bone forms in muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues.
  • Fibromyalgia. A condition that involves generalized aching and pain in the neck, shoulders, arms, back, legs, and other parts of the body, often producing additional symptoms that include fatigue.
  • Friedreich's Ataxia. A hereditary nerve disease that may eventually result in body-wide loss of muscle coordination and other problems.
  • Learning Disability. Neurological disorders that interfere with a person's ability to store, process, or produce information, creating a gap between an individual's ability and performance. Learning disabilities can affect reading, writing, speech, or math skills and also can impede development of social skills. Individuals with learning disabilities generally have normal or above-normal intelligence. They can have marked difficulties with certain types of tasks while excelling at others.
  • Low Vision. A partial loss of eyesight that cannot be corrected fully with eyeglasses, contact lenses, surgery, or other methods. It can range in severity from blind spots in an otherwise clear field of vision to near-total blindness.
  • Retinitis Pigmentosa. A progressive eye disease that affects night vision and peripheral vision.
  • Congenital Achromatopsia. A rare hereditary disorder that affects color vision and usually causes extreme sensitivity to light.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). A psychological disorder that involves unwanted, recurrent thoughts, images, or impulses that cause the individual great anxiety yet cannot be controlled. Individuals with OCD may have obsessions such as fear of contamination and engage in compulsions such as constant washing of the hands.
  • Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI). A hereditary disorder, sometimes called "brittle bone disease," involving bones that break easily. It results in many bone fractures during infancy, childhood, and adolescence, often leaving the individual with short stature. The disability varies in severity.
  • Paraplegia. Paralysis below the chest or waist that involves the trunk and legs and usually results from spinal cord injuries in accidents.
  • Quadriplegia. Paralysis from the neck down that involves both legs, arms, and sometimes hands and usually results from accident-related spinal cord injury.
  • Single-Leg Amputee. An individual who has one leg that is either partially or totally amputated.
  • Tourette Syndrome. A hereditary neurological disorder that involves repeated involuntary movements and uncontrollable vocal sounds or "tics" such as barks or yelps.


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Profiles: Assistive Technology | Persistence | Beyond All Expectations | Late Diagnosis | The Golden Door | Informal Science and Popular Culture | The Pinball Effect | Families

Additional Materials: The Roadmaps Game | Afterward | Students' Backgrounds | Assistive Technology | Notes on Disabilities | 1990s Profile of Disabled Disabilities in Higher Education | Acknowledgments | References

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