Disability History Glossary

This glossary contains the definitions of terms used within disability history.

To link to the terms please click on any blue letter to see corresponding glossary entries:





The features of a building or area such as ramps, sliding doors, toilets etc which ensure that it can be used by people with disabilities.

Airing Court

A walled garden area leading off from 19th century asylum wards where patients were allowed to exercise without fear of 'escape'. Often contained shelters and ornamental features.


The early 19th century word for the medical professional who would later become known as a psychiatrist.


Charitable donations of food or money to the poor or those considered unable to look after themselves.


Homes built, from the medieval period onwards, to shelter elderly, disabled or other people considered unable to look after themselves. (Sometimes known as Maison Dieu)

Ambulant disabled

People who have a disability but are able to walk and do not use a wheelchair.

Architectural disability

The effect of forms of architecture considered by disabled activists to prevent or hinder use by disabled people.


Form of institution particularly for mentally ill or learning disabled people which creates a fully segregated environment set apart from mainstream society. Began as charitable institutions in England in the late 18th century, built and provided by the state from 1815.


A 19th and early 20th century term for staff working with patients in asylums and workhouses.



A game in which small balls are propelled into numbered holes on a board, with pins as obstructions. The forerunner of pinball.


Popular names used by the public for the Royal Bethlehem Hospital in London, the first English institution for people with mental illness.


A destitute person seeking money or help from members of the public.

Billies in Bowls

An 18th century slang expression to describe disabled people who moved themselves around by sitting in a small wooden bowl and propelling themselves with two small wooden blocks.


Early English word for blind.

Board of Control (for lunacy and mental deficiency)

Government body established under the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 to replace the Lunacy Commission, and to oversee the treatment of mentally ill people and people with learning disabilities.

Braidwoodian system

A form of sign language (also known as the combined system) introduced by Thomas Braidwood, who set up the first academy for the deaf and dumb in London in 1783. The forerunner of British Sign Language.


Originally a type of hospital, first established in the 16 th century for the improvement of the ‘idle poor’. Eventually became houses of correction for beggars and petty criminals.

British Sign Language (BSL)

The sign language used in the United Kingdom and the preferred language of many deaf people in the UK.


Care in the community

A system of care and support for people with disabilities and people with mental illness based on the belief that people should live in their communities rather than in separate institution. The Care in the Community green paper of 1981 signalled the end of the asylum era.

Charitable asylum

An asylum established as an independent charity through the voluntary efforts of members of the public. Popular at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries before state asylums became the norm.

Chronic lunatic

A 19th century term for a person with mental illness who is perceived as unlikely to recover from their illness.

City of London

The original walled city, (known today as the square mile) around which the greater conurbation of London later grew. Had its own system of government and was politically influential particularly from the medieval period to the 18th century.


A type of asylum institution established by the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act where both adults and children with learning disabilities lived in a 'village' arrangement of a number of 'villas' each housing up to 60 people.

Combined system

A form of sign language (also known as the Braidwoodian system) introduced by Thomas Braidwood, who set up the first academy for the deaf and dumb in London in 1783. The forerunner of British Sign Language.

Comfortable works

Church teaching of the medieval period which encouraged people to support and give alms to poor and disabled people as a means of speeding their passage to heaven.

Conglomerate asylum

A form of asylum consisting of miscellaneous structures, without any real unity of style and often composed of buildings of widely varying ages.

Corridor asylum

A form of asylum consisting of a series of connecting corridors with wards and other rooms opening off them.

County lunatic asylum

Asylums built by counties across England to house 'pauper lunatics and idiots', meaning mentally ill and learning disabled people unable to meet the costs of their own care. From 1845 it was compulsory for counties to build such asylums, and many built more than one.

Court of Wards

A court established in the Tudor period which allocated responsibility for the affairs of 'lunatics' and 'natural fools'.


A term used to describe physically disabled people until the second half of the 20th century, (creple is its early English form, used in the medieval period). Now used pejoratively or abusively.


An early English term to describe people seen as misshapen in their bodily form.


Daily living skills

The skills seen as necessary to be able to live an independent life, such as cooking, eating, budgeting, shopping and travelling. Restoration of daily living skills is often the focus of rehabilitation programmes.


Early English word for deaf.


Term used in the early 20th century to describe a person who would be described today as having a learning disability.



A theory propounded by eugenicists in the late 19th and 20th centuries that breeding by people who have disabilities, mentally ill people or people who are seen as 'feckless' or 'idle', particularly those from the poorer classes, will cause general racial deterioration in a society.

Disabled access

The design features or adaptations of a building such as ramps, doors, toilets etc which mean that people with disabilities can enter and make use of it.


The period largely between 1533 and 1545 when England under Henry VIII broke with the church in Rome and 'dissolved' or plundered and shut down many religious buildings, including those which cared for the sick and the disabled.


Early English word for a person unable to speak (modern equivalent is dumb). From the medieval period till the 18th century it could signify that a person was deaf as well as unable to speak.



The idea that people with disabilities should be in a position to have power and control over their own lives.


A neurological disorder which can cause loss of consciousness or convulsions. Originally known as 'falling sickness'.


A movement prevalent in the later half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Based on the writings of Francis Galton, eugenicists believed in the sterilisation or even euthanasia of disabled people and others such as the mentally ill or 'morally degenerate' to prevent what they described as racial deterioration. They believed that degeneration was due to genetic inheritance.


Falling sickness

Early English term for Epilepsy.

Feeble minded

A term used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe people who would be described today as having moderate or mild learning disabilities or, as it was also known at the time, 'high grade mental deficiency'.


Early English word usually used to denote a person we would recognise as having a learning disability today. Could also sometimes be used to denote a mentally ill person. Also described people in the role of jester, but distinction was made between 'artificial fools', people pretending to be foolish, and 'natural fools', people born 'foolish'.


Term used particularly between 1850 and 1914 to describe human performers in the popular Freak Shows and Circuses (also known as Human Zoos) of the period, who were exhibited because of their unusual bodily shapes or 'deformities'.


Used in the 18th and 19th centuries to describe mentally ill people who are in a state of agitation or who are perceived to be potentially violent.


Go Cart

An 18th century slang expression to describe a disabled beggar who used a wooden box on wheels to move around.

Gordon Riots

Serious riots which took place in London in June 1780 to protest at the relaxation of anti-Catholic laws which had taken place two years earlier. Mainly targeted Catholic businesses and properties.


Hansen’s disease

The modern medical term for leprosy.



When classification systems were introduced in the 19th century, idiot was used to denote the lowest rank of intelligence and functional ability, similar to what we would define as a profound learning disability today. In earlier English used to describe 'dull witted' people who could be seen as broadly equivalent to what we would define as having a learning disability, but could be used in a wider sense to describe the labouring classes and the peasantry. Today used pejoratively or abusively.


When classification systems were introduced in the 19th century imbecile was used to denote the medium rank of intelligence and functional ability amongst people with learning disabilities, between 'idiot' and 'moron'. Similar to what we would define as a severe learning disability today. In the 19th century could also be used to describe a person with mental illness. Today used pejoratively or abusively.


In its early English sense referred to people considered unable to look after themselves for reasons of age, infirmity or disability. The 'impotent poor' were distinguished from the 'able bodied' poor in poor law legislation.


Describes a building or area that a disabled person is unable to get into or use because its design prevents them from doing so.


Term used to describe mentally ill or learning disabled people whose condition is perceived to be permanent and who are therefore unable to 'recover'.

Indigent blind

Used in the 18th century to describe needy or poor blind people. The first charitable blind schools were for the 'indigent blind'.

Industrial rehabilitation

Rehabilitation for people injured or disabled in industrial accidents.


Early English word for a 'natural fool', broadly a person we would recognise as having a learning disability today.


General term, still in use but not as widely as in the past, to denote mental illness. Tends to be associated with criminal or highly irrational behaviour rather than lower level illness.


A building used specifically for the separate care or treatment of specific groups of people, separated from mainstream society, and, usually, highly regulated in its operations.



In the 16th and 17th centuries referred to any male carer, and did not imply any qualification.



Early English term meaning restricted use of one or more limbs. Applied to restricted use of arms as well as legs.

Lazar House

Medieval term for a specialist institution housing lepers (now known as people with Hansen's disease) derived from the name of the Biblical character Lazarus.

Learning disability

The current terminology in use to describe the condition previously known as mental handicap, mental deficiency and many other terms. Technically defined as 'a significant intellectual impairment and deficits in social functioning or adaptive behaviour (basic everyday skills) which are present from childhood (Learning Disabilities the Fundamental Facts - The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities 2001).

Leper House/hospital

Medieval institution to house and care for people with leprosy (known today as Hansen's disease).


Medieval terms for leper and leprosy respectively.


Terms for the disease known today as Hansen's disease, and those who have the disease. Highly prevalent disabling condition in England and the rest of Europe in the medieval period.


General term for abnormalities in tissues of an organism, often caused by injury or disease. A common consequence of leprosy.

Lunacy commission

A public body established by the Lunacy Act of 1845 to oversee the welfare of people with mental illness ('lunatics') and people with learning disabilities ('idiots'). One of their roles was to monitor and inspect asylums.


Early term to describe broadly the term mentally ill used today. Current usage is pejorative or abusive.


Maison Dieu

Literally 'Godly house', an alternative term for an almshouse.

Mad doctor

An18th century term to describe the proprietor or superintendant of a 'Madhouse'. Mad doctors were not necessarily medically qualified.


A type of institution which began at the end of the 17th century and was particularly prevalent in the 18th century. Private houses which cared for and treated people with mental illness. Mostly treated private patients with independent means, but some also provided for 'pauper' patients paid for by Parishes.

Mainstream education

Generally available public education aimed at all children.


Early English word for sailors.

Mental deficiency

A term used mainly in the first part of the 20th century and broadly having the same meaning as the current term learning disability.

Mental handicap

A term used mainly in the second half of the 20 th century and broadly having the same meaning as the current term learning disability.

Mental health

The state of a person's mental well being.

Mental illness

The generally accepted current terminology for people who are seen as having some sort of disorder or 'abnormality' of the mind which affects their behaviour or ability to function. In the past often referred to as lunacy.

Metropolitan Asylums Board

Established in 1867 under the Metropolitan Poor Act to care for London's sick poor. Established about 40 institutions, including fever hospitals and three large purpose built institutions for 'harmless and incurable lunatics' known as 'idiot asylums'. Duties passed to London County Council in 1930.


A person's ability to move around. Mobility aids and adaptations, such as wheelchairs, crutches and grab rails, and mobility vehicles such as scooters and adapted cars, are designed to assist people with restricted mobility.


The term used by John Langdon Down, the 19th century physician, to describe people known today as people with Down's syndrome. Derived from a belief (since discredited) that their facial features suggested some sort of ancient racial link to Mongolian people.

Moral deficiency/morally deficient

A category of people defined in the early 20th century broadly similar to moral imbecility, whose perceived 'deficiencies' were seen as linked to genetic inheritance.

Moral imbecility/moral imbecile

A category influenced by the ideas of Eugenics in the early 20th century, which labelled as a type of 'feeblemindedness' those people who were believed not to be able to distinguish right from wrong. Drawn exclusively from the poorer classes, this category might include people who would be seen today as having mild learning disabilities, but could also include people such as prostitutes, mothers of illegitimate children and criminals.

Moral management/treatment

A method of treatment for people living in madhouses or lunatic asylums which rejected physical restraint and harsh treatment in favour of gentle discipline, order and therapeutic intervention. Pioneered by the Quaker York Retreat and taken up in some public asylums, in particular by John Connolly at Hanwell Asylum in the 19th century.


When classification systems were introduced in the 19th century moron was used to denote the higher rank of intelligence and functional ability amongst people with learning disabilities, above 'idiot' and 'imbecile'. Similar to what we would define as a moderate learning disability today. Today used pejoratively or abusively.



Shortened term for a natural fool.

Natural Fool

Used from the medieval period until its usage died out in the 18th century, to describe a person born with a lifelong mental impairment. Used to make a distinction from 'lunatics', who were seen as suffering a temporary impairment due to mental illness. Also distinguished from 'artificial fool', someone pretending to be a fool, such as a court jester.


In the 16th and 17th centuries referred to any woman carer, and did not imply any sort of qualification.


Open air school

A type of school introduced to England from Germany in the early 20th century, where pupils spent much of their time learning outdoors. It was believed that fresh air would be beneficial to 'delicate' and disabled children.


An infection causing inflammation of the eye, previously a major cause of blindness but now treatable.



Major international multi-sport event in which athletes with physical disabilities compete. Originated in England in 1948 as an event for disabled war veterans, and now, after the Olympics, the second largest sporting event in the world.


Early English word for paralysed.


A district for the purposes of local government, of particular importance from the medieval period through to the 19th century. Replaced by local authority boundaries. Originally defined by the area served by a church and priest.


A person who does not have the means to support themselves, or who is in receipt of poor relief.

Pavilion asylum

A form of asylum characterised by parallel rows of uniform blocks each housing between 150 and 200 patients. The parallel rows of blocks separated male and female patients.


A healthcare profession which seeks to repair or improve impairments and disabilities through the promotion of mobility, functional ability and quality of life by physical intervention.


(Poliomyelitis), infectious viral disease affecting the central nervous system which can cause temporary or permanent paralysis. First identified in the 19th century, there were major epidemics across Europe thoughout the 20th century. A common childhood disease and cause of disability in England until its eradication through a vaccination programme which began in the 1960s.

Poor Law

Legislation designed to define English society's obligations and duties to the destitute, aged, sick or disabled judged unable to look after themselves. Also contained punitive measures aimed at able-bodied poor people deemed 'idle' or unwilling to work. Began with a 1531 law under Henry VIII and culminated in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Poor relief

From the 16th century, the use of parish or state funds to support destitute, sick, aged or disabled people, as stipulated by the Poor Law. Could be given as cash (outdoor relief) to allow people to achieve a level of subsistence needed for survival, or in kind (indoor relief), a place in a workhouse. After the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, indoor relief was favoured over outdoor relief.


The use of artificial replacements for missing body parts, particularly limbs.

Public assistance institution

The term used in the 10th century to describe a workhouse.


In medieval belief a place of temporary suffering where people's earthly sins are cleansed before they ascend to heaven.


The practice popular in early medicine, particularly in the 18th century, of removing blood or other fluids, e.g. vomit from a patient. Derived from the idea that the health of a person depends on the balance of four 'humours', and that purging can restore balance when it has gone out of alignment.


Quack doctor

A person pretending to have medical skills and promoting the sale of unproven or fraudulent medical remedies.


A religious movement originating in England in the 17th century, based on a belief in a direct relationship between individual believers and God. Quakers became prominent in social reform movements in the 18th century, including the establishment of humane asylums practising 'moral treatment'.



Early English word used to describe people experiencing episodes of mental illness where they appear to have no control of their emotions and to be talking nonsensically.


A process of medical and other interventions to enable people who have become disabled through accident or injury, or who have experienced mental illness, to recover skills and functions they have lost, to aid their recovery and reintegration into society.


Reserved occupations

An idea introduced in legislation after the Second World War where certain jobs, such as lift attendants or car park attendants, were reserved solely for people who have some sort of disability. Intended to boost employment of people with disabilities.


The practice of using manacles, straitjackets or other physically coercive methods to control people seen as out of control, disruptive or dangerous.


An early word to describe an isolated therapeutic environment, separate from the pressures of mainstream society, where people who have experienced mental illness can undergo healing and recovery (e.g. The York Retreat).


Self direction

The idea that disabled people should be given funds with which to purchase and control their own support and care arrangements.

Sheltered work

Work for disabled people taking place in specialist work settings separate from mainstream workplaces.

Sledge beggar

An 18th century expression to describe a disabled beggar who used a wooden sledge, pulled by a dog or another person, to move around.

Social model

The social model of disability argues that while physical, intellectual or social variations can cause individual limitations or impairments, it is society's failure to take account of these differences and include people that causes disability. The idea developed between the 1960s and 1980s in opposition to the 'medical model' of disability.


The word originally used to describe a person with cerebral palsy, but now only used in a pejorative or abusive sense.

Special education

The provision of separate education in schools specifically established for children with disabilities (and other difficulties such as behaviour).

Spinal paralysis

Injury or damage to the spine causing the loss of the use of two limbs (paraplegic), or all four limbs (quadriplegic).

Spital, Spytall

Early English word for a hospital.


Surgical procedure to make men or women infertile. Advocated by the Eugenics movement for people viewed as mentally and sometimes physically or morally degenerate or deficient.


Early English word meaning 'able-bodied' as in 'sturdy vagabond', meaning a beggar who has no disability or sickness preventing them from working.


Tom o'Bedlam

A 16th and 17th century expression to describe a mentally ill beggar.

Trade Guild

Associations of craftsmen in a particular trade, originating in the medieval period. Their purpose was both to protect and regulate their own trade and to care for their own members, e.g. through the provision of almshouses.


Having tuberculosis, an infectious disease of the lungs.



Open sores on the body, one of the symptoms of leprosy in the medieval period.

Universal design

Architectural approach which seeks to ensure that buildings are fully accessible in all parts to anyone with any sort of disability.



Early English word for a beggar, tending to denote those who were perceived as 'idle', dangerous or criminal, as opposed to impotent beggars who were incapacitated in some way and not seen as dangerous.


Used to describe the separate ward buildings housing up to 60 people in Pavilion design asylums, particularly mental deficiency colonies.


Water Tower

The high towers often at the centre of 19th century asylums, and visible from a distance, which supplied water to asylum staff and patients. They became an iconic symbol of the separateness of the asylum.

Wheelchair polo

A form of the game of Polo, which is usually played by riders on horses striking a ball with long mallets. Played instead in wheelchairs using shortened mallets. First played at Stoke Mandeville hospital.

Wild Boy

Term used to describe a number of young men and boys who were ‘discovered’ or emerged from remote European forest areas during the 18th century. They were without language and were perceived as animal-like in their behaviours. They were of great interest to philosophers, doctors and intellectuals who were trying to define what constituted a human, and whether language was innate or learnt. Retrospectively it is considered that most probably had a learning disability or other condition and had been abandoned by their families.


An institution to house and put to work the destitute poor. Many destitute sick, aged and disabled people also lived in them. After the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act deliberately designed as punitive institutions to discourage people from 'idleness'.