Glossary of Terms


Communication is an interactive, two-way process that involves both understanding and being understood. Communication occurs such as face-to-face interactions, communication over the telephone or an alternate to telephone, at meetings, case conferences, online learning opportunities, accessing, reading and understanding information, completing forms and signing documents.

Disabilities that may affect communication 

Disabilities that may affect communication include cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, Down Syndrome, learning disability, fetal alcohol spectrum syndrome, cognitive or intellectual disability, attention deficit disorder, acquired or traumatic brain injury, aphasia after a stroke, dementia, head and neck cancer, voice disorders, stuttering, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or Multiple Sclerosis and other conditions.

Communication Methods

Communication methods for people who have speech and language disabilities may include speech, vocalization, mouthing, body positioning, facial expressions, eye gaze, gestures, mime, sign language, adapted signs, writing, drawing, typing, selecting or pointing to pictures, photographs, symbols, written words and letters on a board or device. People who are Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing may use speechreading, lipreading, sign language and captioning in real time.

People who have disabilities that affect communication

People who have disabilities that affect communication live in every community and cross all ages, ancestry, colour, race, ethnic origin, linguistic, intellectual abilities, creed/spirituality, gender identity, sexual orientation, financial, family, marital status and cultural communities. In addition, they may or may not have additional (intersecting) disabilities such as physical, intellectual, sensory, learning ability and mental health issues.

Speech, Language, Communication and Cognitive Disabilities

Refers to a range of disabilities that can impact one or more areas of a person’s ability to speak, hear, read, write, and/or understand what is being said. Disabilities that impact on communication include cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, multiple sclerosis, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), aphasia after a stroke, dementia, acquired brain injury, head and neck cancer, Parkinson’s disease and other disabilities.

Speech Disability

Speech refers to the sounds we use to make words. People who have disabilities that affect their speech may have unclear speech or no speech.

Language Disability

Language refers to how we understand what is said, abstract concepts and information and/or express thoughts using appropriate words and grammar to convey intended meaning. A language disability is not always indicative of a cognitive disability.

Communication Disability

Communication is how we interact with others, take turns in a conversation, use eye contact and understand another person’s perspective. People who have disabilities in communication may have challenges interacting socially with other people.

Cognitive Disability

A cognitive or intellectual disability, either from birth or later in life, can affect areas such as attention, memory, learning, problem-solving, reasoning and planning that impact on a person’s listening, understanding, speaking, reading, writing, social communication and decision making.

Communication Access

Communication access refers to practices within service entities to ensure that people understand what is said or written and can communicate what they want to convey in face-to-face and telephone interactions, teleconferencing, online learning, meetings, conferences, public consultations, reading (print, websites and digital), and writing (forms, signatures, surveys and notetaking).

Communication Barrier

Any obstacle that prevents the effective exchange of ideas, thoughts and questions in face-to-face, group or telephone interactions, and via reading and writing. Barriers include information that is presented in ways that the person cannot understand what is being said and/or written, and/or not having effective communication aids, supports, time or opportunity to express messages.

Communication Practices 

Things that a service provider can do to facilitate effective communication with a person who has a communication disability. Examples of communication practices include asking the person if they require any communication supports, providing information in ways the person can hear and understand, providing extra time for communication, and ensuring the person has the means, opportunity and time to communicate their messages.

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Communication Accommodations and Supports

Refers to accommodations and supports that a person may need for effective two-way communication with service providers in one or more areas of understanding spoken and/or written information, expression of messages, retaining information, problem solving, making decisions, completing and signing forms.

Communication Accommodations

Items that enable a person with a communication disability to understand and communicate effectively. Examples are pen, paper, picture/photo/text cards/video explanations/symbol or letter boards, communication devices, artificial larynx, adapted call bells, baby monitor, voice amplifiers, hearing aids, pocket talker, glasses and visual aids, plain language materials, pictures to support comprehension, easy reading, alternative-format documents. Communication aids can be generic or commercial. They are often custom designed for an individual to accommodate their specific communication needs. accommodations may also include environmental factors such lighting, quaiet

Communication Supports

Communication support is human support that an individual may or may not require.  Support can be provided by a person who knows the individual well, such as a family member or support worker and who has been authorized by the person to assist them with communication. In some situations, communication support may be formal and provided by a Speech-Language Pathologist. In justice situations, a Communication Intermediary may be required, which is Speech-Language Pathologist who is trained to work in these settings.

Communication Assistant

A communication assistant is a person who assists an individual with communication. A communication assistant can be a family member, a support worker or someone else who is familiar with how the individual communicates. A communication assistant must be  approved by the individual who requires support. A communication assistant conveys messages generated or directed by the individual, and may assist with comprehension, reading and writing if required. An authorized communication assistant is not necessarily a substitute decision maker and does not typically have Power of Attorney.

CDAC’s free online training at

Proxy Communicator or Advocate

A person who knows the individual well and who says what they think the person might communicate if they could, or what they think is in the best interest of the person.

Personal Support Worker (PSW) or Attendant  

Services that a person may need for positioning, transfers, mobility, washroom, assistance with eating and drinking and personal hygiene. A PSW or attendant may work for an agency or be employed directly by a person with a disability. When authorized by a person with a communication disability, a PSW or attendant may assist with communication.

Communication Intermediary

A Speech-Language Pathologist with additional training from CDAC and/or CAJust to assist victims, witnesses and accused people who have speech and language disabilities to understand questions and to communicate answers effectively when communicating with police, legal or justice professionals.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

AAC is a set of tools and strategies that an individual uses to communicate, such as speech, a shared glance, text, gestures, facial expressions, touch, sign language, symbols, pictures, speech-generating devices, etc. In Canada, there are specialized AAC clinics.  Connect with ISAAC Canada for more information.

Preferred Communication Method

Refers to the person’s preference in using their communication methods in a specific situation. For example, in some situations, a person may prefer to use a letter board or answer yes and no questions rather than using their speech generating communication device.

Alternative Format Documents

Written information provided as an alternative to standard print, or handwritten information. Examples include large print, braille or electronic.

Accessible Text, Layout and Design

Refers to digital and print materials that follow best practice guidelines for font, alignment, color contrast, layout and use of graphics.

Plain Language / Easy Read Documents

Refers to writing that is clear, concise, well organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.

Accessible Website

Accessible websites comply with latest web accessibility guidelines, such as WCAG 2.0

This document is useful for managers, front-line staff and policy makers who are responsible for providing face-to-face and telephone customer services, hosting meetings and events, and communicating information in any way to and from the public. We provide general suggestions on ways to make services accessible for people who have speech, language and communication disabilities that are not primarily caused by significant hearing or vision impairments.