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Appendix 1: Glossary of human rights terms

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Ableism: attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. People with disabilities are assumed to be less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and take part, and of less value than other people. Ableism can be conscious or unconscious and is embedded in institutions, systems or the broader culture of a society.

Aboriginal Peoples: a collective name for the original people of North America and their descendants. The Canadian Constitution (the Constitution Act, 1982) recognizes three groups of Aboriginal Peoples – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – as separate peoples with unique heritages, languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), 2005: the purpose of the AODA is to develop, implement and enforce accessibility standards to remove barriers for Ontarians with disabilities on or before January 1, 2025 in relation to: goods, services, facilities, accommodations, employment and buildings, structures and premises. The AODA came into effect on June 4, 2005.

Accessibility: a general term for the degree of ease that something (e.g., device, service, physical environment and information) can be accessed, used and enjoyed by persons with disabilities. The term implies conscious planning, design and/or effort to make sure something is barrier-free to persons with disabilities. Accessibility also benefits the general population, by making things more usable and practical for everyone, including older people and families with small children.

Accessible: does not have obstacles for people with disabilities – something that can be easily reached or obtained; facility that can be easily entered; information that is easy to access.

Adaptive technologies: products that help people (primarily people with vision, hearing, mobility or other disabilities) who cannot use regular versions of products.

Adverse impact: having a harmful result. Sometimes treating everyone the same will have a negative effect on some people.

Affirmative action: action designed to address the historic disadvantage that identifiable groups (e.g., women, racialized persons) have experienced by increasing their representation in employment and/or higher education.

African Canadian: a Canadian of African origin or descent.

Ageism: discrimination based on age.

Ally: a member of the dominant group who acts against oppression.

Alternative (alternate) format: a method of communication that takes into account a person’s disabilities. Examples include providing a text version of a website, or a large print version of a document for someone with a visual disability.

Anti-racism/Anti-oppression: an active and consistent process of change to eliminate individual, institutional and systemic racism as well as the oppression and injustice racism causes.

Assistive device: devices to help people – primarily people with disabilities – to perform a task. Examples are a wheelchair, personal oxygen tank, assistive listening device, electronic device with adaptive technology, or visible emergency alarm.

Audism: the notion that a person is superior based on their ability to hear or to act like a person who hears.

Band: the Indian Act defines band as a body of First Nations people for whose common use and benefit lands have been set aside or monies held by the Government of Canada or declared by the Governor in Council to be a band. Each band has its own governing band council, usually consisting of one Chief and several Councillors. Community members elect the Chief and Councillors, or sometimes choose them through traditional custom. Band members generally share common values, traditions and practices rooted in their ancestral heritage. Today, many bands prefer to be known as First Nations.

Band Council: the governing body of a band. It usually has a Chief and Councillors who are elected for two or three-year terms (under the Indian Act or band custom) to carry out band business. This may include education, water, sewer, fire services, bylaws, community buildings, schools, roads and other community businesses and services.

Barrier: anything that prevents a person from fully taking part in all aspects of society, including physical, architectural, information or communications, attitudinal, economic and technological barriers, as well as policies or practices.

Bias: a predisposition, prejudice or generalization about a group of persons based on personal characteristics or stereotypes.

Bigotry: intolerance, negative attitudes or stereotypes related to another person’s creed, race, sexual orientation, etc.

Biological sex: the biological classification of people as male and/or female. A doctor usually assigns sex at birth, by visually assessing external anatomy. Sex terms are “male,” “female” and “intersex.”

Biracial: a person whose ancestry includes members of two racial groups.

Bisexual: a person who is emotionally, physically, spiritually and/or sexually attracted to members of more than one gender.

Black: a social construct referring to people who have dark skin colour and/or other related racialized characteristics. The term has become less of an indicator of skin colour and more of racialized characteristics. Diverse societies apply different criteria to determine who is Black.

Characteristics: a personal trait or attribute

Cognitive disability: see Disability.

Coming out: the often life-long process of discovering, defining and proclaiming (usually non-heterosexual) sexuality.

Competing rights: situations where parties to a dispute claim that the enjoyment of an individual or group’s human rights and freedoms, as protected by law, would interfere with another’s rights and freedoms.

Culture: the customs, beliefs, behaviours and/or achievements of a particular time and/or people; behaviour within a particular group.

Cultural competence: an ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures, particularly in human resources, non-profit organizations, and government agencies whose employees work with persons from different cultural/ethnic backgrounds. Cultural competence has four components:

  1. Awareness of one's own cultural worldview
  2. Attitude towards cultural differences
  3. Knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews
  4. Cross-cultural skills (developing cultural competence results in an ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures.

Culturally competent organization: an organization that displays cultural competence, in both its systems and individual behaviour.

Custom: a traditional practice. For example, band councils chosen “by custom” are elected or selected by traditional means, rather than by election rules contained in the Indian Act.

Dimensions of diversity: the unique personal characteristics that distinguish us as individuals and groups. These include but are not limited to: age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, physical and intellectual ability, class, creed, religion, sexual orientation, educational background and expertise.

Disability: There are two common ways of looking at what disability is.

One way is to see a disability as a medical condition that a person has. From this perspective, disability covers a broad range and degree of conditions, some visible and some not visible. A disability may have been present from birth, caused by an accident, or developed over time. There are physical, mental, cognitive  and learning disabilities, mental disorders, hearing or vision disabilities, epilepsy, drug and alcohol dependencies, environmental sensitivities and other conditions.

A newer way of looking at disability is that it is not something a person has. A person with a medical condition is not necessarily prevented (or disabled) from fully taking part in society. If society is designed to be accessible and include everyone, then people with medical conditions often don’t have a problem taking part. From this point of view, disability is a problem that occurs when a person’s environment is not designed to suit their abilities.

Discrimination: treating someone unfairly by either imposing a burden on them, or denying them a privilege, benefit or opportunity enjoyed by others, because of their race, citizenship, family status, disability, sex or other personal characteristics (note: this is not a legal definition).

Diverse: of various kinds, forms, characters, etc.; varied.

Diversity: the presence of a wide range of human qualities and attributes within an individual, group or organization. Diversity includes such factors as age, sex, race, ethnicity, physical and intellectual ability, religion, sexual orientation, educational background and expertise.

Duty to accommodate: Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, people identified by Code grounds are entitled to the same opportunities and benefits as everybody else. 
In some cases, they may need special arrangements or “accommodations” to take part equally in the social areas the Code covers, such as employment, housing and education. Employers, housing providers, education providers and other parties responsible under the Code have a legal obligation to accommodate Code-identified needs, unless they can prove it would cause them undue hardship. Undue hardship is based on cost, outside sources of funding and health and safety factors.

East Asian people: people who share ancestry, heritage and culture from several countries and regions, such as: Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Elder: a distinguished man or woman who is recognized in the Aboriginal community for the gift of wisdom, healing and/or spiritual leadership.

Equal opportunity: aims to ensure that all people have equal access, free of barriers, equal participation and equal benefit from whatever an organization has to offer. Note that equal opportunity extends beyond employment.

Equal treatment: treatment that brings about an equality of results and that may, in some instances, require different treatment. For example, to give all students equal treatment in entering a building, it may be necessary to provide a ramp for a student who uses a wheelchair.

Equitable: just or characterized by fairness or equity. Equitable treatment can at times differ from same treatment.

Equity: fairness, impartiality, even-handedness. A distinct process of recognizing differences within groups of individuals, and using this understanding to achieve substantive equality in all aspects of a person’s life.

Ethnicity: sharing a distinctive cultural and historical tradition often associated with race, place of origin, ancestry or creed.

Exclusion: denying access to a place, group, privilege, etc.

First Nation(s)/First Nations People: this term became common use in the 1970s to replace the word “Indian.” Although the term First Nation is widely used, no legal definition exists. The term has also been adopted to replace the word “Band” in the naming of communities. Many people today prefer to be called “First Nations” or “First Nations People” instead of “Indians.” Generally, “First Nations People” is used to describe both Status and Non-Status Indians. The term is rarely used as a synonym for “Aboriginal Peoples” because it usually does not include Inuit or Métis people.

Francophone (inclusive definition): people who have a particular knowledge of French as an Official Language and use French at home, including people whose mother tongue may not be French or English.

Gay: people whose enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attractions are to people of the same sex. Also used as an umbrella term for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.

Gender: the social classification of people as masculine and/or feminine.

Gender identity: a person’s conscious sense of maleness and/or femaleness. This sense of self is separate and distinct from one’s biological sex.

Harassment: engaging in a course of comments or actions that are known, or ought reasonably to be known, to be unwelcome. It can involve words or actions that are known or should be known to be offensive, embarrassing, humiliating, demeaning or unwelcome. Harassment under the Ontario Human Rights Code is based on the prohibited/protected grounds (see definition).

Historical disadvantage: disadvantage resulting from historic patterns of institutionalized and other forms of systemic discrimination, sometimes legalized social, political, cultural, ethnic, religious and economic discrimination, as well as discrimination in employment. This also includes under-representation experienced by disadvantaged groups such as women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, LGBT persons and racialized people.

Hate activity: comments or actions against a person or group motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, ancestry, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, marital status, family status, sexual orientation or any other similar factor. Examples are: hate crime, hate propaganda, advocating genocide, telephone/electronic communication promoting hate, and publicly displaying hate in notices, signs, symbols and emblems.

Heterosexual: a person who has emotional, physical, spiritual and sexual attraction to persons of the opposite sex.

Heterosexism: the assumption that heterosexuality is superior and preferable, and is the only right, normal or moral expression of sexuality. This definition is often used when looking at discrimination against gay, lesbian or bisexual people that is less overt, and which may be unintentional and unrecognized by the person or organization responsible.

Homosexual: a person who has emotional, physical, spiritual and sexual attraction to persons of the “same sex.” More of a medical term, it is considered outdated and often insulting to many gay people or communities.

Homophobia: the irrational aversion to, fear or hatred of gay, lesbian or bisexual people and communities, or of behaviours stereotyped as “homosexual.”

Impairment: a physical, sensory, intellectual, learning or medical condition, including mental illness, that limits functioning and/or requires accommodation. Impairment may be apparent to others or hidden, inherited, self-inflicted or acquired, and may exist alone or in combination with other impairments. Impairment can affect anyone (whatever their gender, sex, race, culture, age, religion, creed, etc.).

Inclusion: appreciating and using our unique differences – strengths, talents, weaknesses and frailties – in a way that shows respect for the individual and ultimately creates a dynamic multi-dimensional organization.

Inclusive design: Taking into account differences among individuals and groups when designing something, to avoid creating barriers. Inclusive design can apply to systems, facilities, programs, policies, services, education, etc.

Indian: this term is used to identify people the Government of Canada recognizes as having Indian status – people who have an identifiable band, who live or were born on a reserve, and/or who are recognized under a complex set of rules under the Indian Act (1985). The term does not include Inuit or Métis peoples. There are three categories of Indians in Canada: Status Indians; Non-Status Indians; and Treaty Indians. Note: The term “Indian” is considered outdated by many people, and “First Nation(s)” is typically used instead.

Indian Act: Canadian legislation first passed in 1876 and amended several times since, most recently in 1985. It sets out certain federal government obligations and regulates the management of reserve lands, Indian monies and other resources.

Indian status: a person’s legal status as an ”Indian,” as defined by the Indian Act  (see Status Indian).

Indigenous: generally used in the international context, refers to peoples who are original to a particular land or territory. This term is very similar to “Aboriginal” and has a positive connotation.

Intellectual disability: also called a developmental disability, involves significant limitations both in intellectual functioning (reasoning, learning, problem solving) and in adaptive behavior, which covers a range of everyday social and practical skills. Some people may be born without this disability, but develop it later in life due to an illness or accident.

Intergenerational: existing or occurring between different generations of people; involving more than one generation.

Intersex: People born with unidentified or misidentified genitals. Formerly inappropriately referred to as hermaphrodites, intersex people are not easily categorized as “male” or “female” because of ambiguous genitals. Most intersex people do not possess "both" sets of genitals, rather a blending, or a different appearance that is medically difficult to categorize for many doctors.

Inuit: the Aboriginal Peoples of Arctic Canada who live primarily in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and northern parts of Labrador and Québec. The word Inuit means “people” in the Inuit language – Inuktitut. The singular of Inuit is Inuk. Their traditional languages, customs and cultures are distinctly different from those of the First Nations and Métis.

Lesbian: a woman who has emotional, physical, spiritual and/or sexual attraction to other women.

LGBT: short for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender. “GLBT” is also used. An acronym that also encompasses the diversity within the Trans and Queer community is LGBTTIQQ2A – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, 2-spirited and Allies.

Merit: picking a candidate for a position who meets job-related selection criteria, such as skills, knowledge, experience and ability, at the level required for a position or assignment. Merit-based criteria may also include unique diversity-related knowledge and experiences.

Métis: French term meaning "mixed blood." The Canadian Constitution recognizes Métis people as one of the three Aboriginal Peoples. The term is used broadly to describe people with mixed First Nations and European ancestry who identify themselves as Métis, distinct from First Nations people, Inuit or non-Aboriginal people. 

Multiracial: a person whose heritage includes members of multiple racial groups.

Ontarians with Disabilities Act (ODA), 2001:  requires government ministries, municipalities and public sector organizations such as transportation companies, hospitals and school boards to develop an annual accessibility plan to identify, remove and prevent barriers to accessibility in a number of areas.

Pay equity: the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. For example, the requirement to pay males and females within the same organization the same salary
for work that is judged to be of equal value.

Person/people of colour: an inclusive term that encompasses a wide range of social identity groups, including Asians, Aboriginal Peoples, Latinas/Latinos and Blacks.

Persons with disabilities: persons with one or more long-term or recurring disability (see disability).

Poisoned work environment: a negative, hostile or unpleasant workplace due to comments or conduct that tend to demean a group identified by one or more prohibited grounds under the Code, even if not directed at a specific individual. A poisoned work environment may result from a serious single event, remark or action.

Power: access to privileges such as information/knowledge, connections, experience and expertise, resources and decision-making that enhance a person’s chances of getting what they need to live a comfortable, safe, productive and profitable life.

Prejudice: negative prejudgment or preconceived feelings or notions about another person or group of persons based on perceived characteristics.

Pride (when used in reference to the LGBT community): not being ashamed of oneself and/or showing your pride to others by “coming out,” marching in the Pride parade, etc., being honest and comfortable about who you are.

Privilege: unearned power, benefits, advantages, access and/or opportunities that exist for members of the dominant group(s) in society. Can also refer to the relative privilege of one group compared to another.

Prohibited/protected grounds: the Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination or harassment based on these personal characteristics. The specific protected grounds include: age, ancestry, citizenship, colour, creed, disability, ethnic origin, family status, gender identity and gender expression (recently added to the Code), marital status, place of origin, race, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, receipt of public assistance (in housing) and record of offences (in employment).

Queer: formerly derogatory slang term used to identify LGBT people. Some members of the LGBT community have embraced and reinvented this term as a positive and proud political identifier when speaking among and about themselves.

Questioning: exploring one’s own sexual and/or gender identity, looking at such things as upbringing, expectations from others (family, friends, church, employers, etc.) and inner motivation.

Race: There is no such thing as race – instead, it is a “social construct.” This means that society forms ideas of race based on geographic, historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors, as well as physical traits, even though none of these can legitimately be used to classify groups of people. See Racialization.

Racialization: the process by which societies construct races as real, different and unequal in ways that matter and affect economic, political and social life.

Racial profiling: any action that relies on stereotypes about race, colour, ethnicity, ancestry, religion or place of origin, or a combination of these, rather than on a reasonable suspicion to single out a person for greater scrutiny or different treatment.

Racism: a belief that one group is superior or inferior to others. Racism can be openly displayed in racial jokes, slurs or hate crimes. It can also be more deeply rooted in attitudes, values and stereotypical beliefs. In some cases, people don’t even realize they have these beliefs. Instead, they are assumptions that have evolved over time and have become part of systems and institutions.

Sexism: discrimination based on sex.

Sexual orientation: the direction of one's sexual interest or attraction. It is a personal characteristic that forms part of who you are. It covers the range of human sexuality from lesbian and gay, to bisexual and heterosexual.

South Asian: a native or inhabitant of the Indian subcontinent including countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Status Indian: a person recognized by the federal government as being registered under the Indian Act is referred to as a Registered Indian (commonly referred to as a Status Indian).

Stereotype: incorrect assumption based on things like race, colour, ethnic origin, place of origin, religion, etc. Stereotyping typically involves attributing the same characteristics to all members of a group regardless of their individual differences. It is often based on misconceptions, incomplete information and/or false generalizations.

Straight: people whose enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction is to people of the opposite sex. See Heterosexual.

Systemic barrier: a barrier embedded in the social or administrative structures of an organization, including the physical accessibility of an organization, organizational policies, practices and decision-making processes, or the culture of an organization. These may appear neutral on the surface but exclude members of groups protected by the Human Rights Code.

Systemic discrimination: patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the social or administrative structures of an organization, and which create or perpetuate a position of relative disadvantage for groups identified under the Human Rights Code.

Two-Spirit: according to ancient teachings, “two-spirited” people were considered gifted among all beings because they carried two spirits: that of male and female. It is told that women engaged in tribal warfare and married other women as there were men who married other men. These individuals were looked upon as a third gender in many cases and in almost all cultures they were honoured and revered. Today, the term refers to Aboriginal people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-gendered, other gendered, third/fourth gendered individuals that walk carefully between the worlds and between the genders.

Transgender or Trans: a person whose biological sex assigned at birth does not match their gender identity.

Transsexual: People who are identified at birth as one sex, but who identify themselves differently. They may seek or undergo one or more medical treatments to align their bodies with their internally felt identity, such as hormone therapy, sex-reassignment surgery or other procedures. While this term is embraced by some people as an identity, it is rejected by others and should be used with caution.

West Indian: a person from the West Indies or of West Indian descent from countries such as Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago.

White: people belonging to any of various peoples with light coloured skin, usually of European origin. The term has become an indicator less of skin colour and more of racialized characteristics.

Glossary sources

  • 2008 Framework for Action: Diverse Ontario, Diverse OPS
  • 2-Spirits (
  • Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA)
  • MCSCS Adult Institutions Policy and Procedures Manual - “Aboriginal Spirituality Policy”, February 2007
  • Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
  • Canadian Human Rights Commission
  • Canadian Oxford Dictionary
  • Carleton University, Equity Services, Definitions
  • Centre for Leadership and Learning, May I Help You? Welcoming Customers with Disabilities E-Learning
  • Criminal Code of Canada
  • Employment Equity Act, 1995
  • First Nations and Métis Relations – Government of Saskatchewan
  • Gallaudet University. FAQ: Audism
  • Intersex Society of North America
  • Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs
  • Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Project 800: Senior Leadership Development Program. Anti-Sexism/Anti-Racism and Systemic Change.
  • Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001 (ODA)
  • Ontario Human Rights Commission
  • OPS Equal Opportunity Operating Policy
  • OPS Inclusion Lexicon – OPS Diversity Office, MGS
  • OPS Pride Network Glossary
  • Pay Equity Act, 1990
  • Proceedings of the International Low Vision Conference, Spain, 1998
  • Public Service Alliance of Canada
  • The Inclusion Breakthrough: Unleashing the Real Power of Diversity, by Frederick A. Miller and Judith H. Katz
  • University of Rhode Island, Office of Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity and Diversity
  • Warry, W. (2008). Ending Denial: Understanding Aboriginal Issues. University of Toronto Press; p. 9.
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health
  • World Health Organization (WHO)



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