Skip to content

Frequently Used Concepts and Terms

Introduction to frequently used concepts and terms

The following concepts and terms are intended to provide deeper understanding of the modules. These are not meant to be static definitions but always evolving. They are seeds for further learning activities to understand how concepts and terms change depending on location, time, and purpose. For example, does colonialism or eugenics as a concept belong in the past or does it continue today? The ways concepts and terms are utilized has implications for policy and practice today.


Ableism means intentional or unintentional prejudice against people with disabilities. Being ableist means to view disability as abnormal, lacking, and different from what is considered to be biologically “normal.” For example, refusing to make a gym more physically accessible or not hiring people with disabilities to teach fitness classes.


Activism is the creative process of making change in society. Activism is led by groups of people who demand change to create better living conditions for themselves and others. There are many kinds of activism, including participating in rallies and protests, conducting research, policy, and legal change work, writing and art-making, and even posting on social media about personal experiences in order to create awareness and change people’s perceptions.


Aesthetics refers to our sense of what is beautiful, interesting, and fulfilling. Aesthetics also refers to how art makes you feel. Feelings can be an important learning tool.


Ageism is prejudice or discrimination based solely on the grounds of someone’s age. This usually comes in the form of discrimination against older adults or a tendency to privilege people who are young e.g., only hiring fitness instructors who are younger than 35 years of age or using product advertisements that display only young people.


The word anthropometry comes from the Greek meaning of ‘human’ and ‘measure’ and refers to the measurement of an individual. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eugenicists were very interested in measuring bodies. Anthropometrics have been used to explain differences in human bodies and show how physical attributes, racialized characteristics, and psychological traits are linked. This included measuring people’s height, weight, and head (and brain) size. This type of work was avowedly racist and (mostly) discredited after World War II.

However, anthropometrics remains a common feature of fitness tests to this day. During a typical fitness test, an individual’s height, weight, waist-to-hip ratio, skinfold measurements (using calipers) are recorded. Then, other activities are performed to assess strength, flexibility, endurance, and sometimes balance. Average scores on these tests were often created by using scores derived from young, white, non-disabled, and lean people. Most individuals who are trained to conduct fitness tests today are not informed of the problematic history of anthropometrics and its link to eugenics. (Explore ReVisioning Fitness for more on the relationships between anthropometry and fitness)


Assimilation is the process in which the values, behaviors, and beliefs of smaller groups or cultures (the minority) come to resemble fully or partially those of a dominant group (the majority). Integration, harmony, and inclusion are words that describe a process of assimilation into dominant ideas and practices. For example, the word “assimilation” shifts to “integration” in Canada’s Indian Act in 1951 – but the government policy objective was still aimed at assimilation.

Audio Description

Audio description is a form of narration that describes visual elements in things like films, television, performances, or events.

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) is a natural language that is expressed by movements of the hands and face. ASL is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing and is used by some hearing people as well. ASL is also widely learned as a second language. There is no universal sign language. Different sign languages are used in different countries or regions.


Capitalism is an economic system in which the profits from a society’s means of production of goods are owned by individuals or companies (not the government).


Captioning is the process of displaying and creating a transcript of audio media on a visual display, such as a television or computer screen. Captions are visible on or next to the media.

Child Welfare

The Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal defines Child Welfare as “a term used to describe a set of government and private services designed to protect children and encourage family stability.” Despite the stated aim of these services to safeguard children from abuse and neglect, the Child Welfare system has harmed many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples as a continuation of Canada’s persistent discriminatory practice of stealing First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children from their families with the goal of assimilation and elimination.


Cis-sexism is the discrimination or prejudice against transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. For example, it is cis-sexist to not have gender neutral washrooms at facilities or to use binary or gendered fitness cues when teaching a class. (Explore ReVisioning Fitness for more on the relationships between cis-sexism and fitness)


A citation is a reference to the source of an idea, a book, a document, an author, or work of art. In this course, we use citations to give people more information about where to find out more about something. We also use citations to acknowledge authorship and to provide context. Sometimes citations are used to create authority, validity, and believability.


Classism is the intentional or unintentional prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s income, socio-economic-status, or social class. It includes individual attitudes and behaviors as well as systems of policies and practices that are set up to benefit the middle-upper class at the expense of the working class.


Colonialism is a practice or policy of control by power over other people or areas, often by establishing colonies and generally with the aim of economic dominance. In the process of colonization, colonizers imposed (and continue to impose) their religion, language, economics, and other cultural practices. On Turtle Island, colonialization refers to the ideas and practices used to take control over First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples and their land. It involves theft of lands, taking from that land, and asserting control and power over First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. In settler Canada, the Indian Residential School system and the 60s Scoop are also examples of colonization. Decolonization is the undoing of colonialism. On Turtle Island, it involves working towards restoring freedom and self-determination to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, repatriation of their land and life, and cultural and spiritual resurgence; at the same time, it means moving away from ideas and practices that give white settlers unjust rights and privilege over First Nations, Inuit, Métis peoples. As Mona Stonefish states in her module here, “Agents of colonialism tried to take our language and traditions. We need to put them back.”


“To crip” or “cripping,” according to Carrie Sandahl, “spins mainstream representations or practices to reveal able-bodied assumptions and exclusionary effects. Both queering and cripping expose the arbitrary delineation between normal and defective and negative social ramifications of attempts to homogenize humanity, and both disarm with a wicked humor, including camp.”1(footnote)


To dehumanize means to try to take away human qualities, personality, or dignity from someone. It also means: to expose someone to conditions or treatment that are inhuman or degrading, to speak to or describe someone in a way that reduces that person’s humanity or sense of self, or to turn human life into a thing as an act of control and oppression.2(footnote)


Denialism refers to the act of denying the truth. The truth held by survivors of settler eugenics must be told and understood to move forward in socially and ecologically just ways. Those who feel their privilege is threatened by the truth have a vested interest in not knowing the truth and seeking ways of denying it.


Difference is entangled, generative, and primary to all life and knowledge. Colonial white supremacy has sought to eliminate bodymind differences and produce singular ideas about life and human lives that have been extremely debilitating for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, Black, and other racialized groups, as well as disabled, poor, and 2SLGTBQ+ people.3(footnote)


Two approaches to disability include the medical model and the social model. The medical model focuses on individuals as the source of disability. In this way of thinking, the individual becomes the focus of medical interventions to fix and cure disability. The social model of disability looks at the way society is constructed to create barriers to access. Socially and physically constructed barriers are the source of disability; in other words, disability is imposed on people whose bodyminds do not fit within perceptions of normality. Using the conventional language to speak of “disabled people” emphasizes the way social, cultural, and physical environments create disability (as in the person has been disabled by constructed barriers). The language convention of using people-first language (for example, “people with disabilities”) emphasizes the person over the disability in terms of how people identify. Both conventions are used in the modules.

Doctrine of Discovery

Doctrine of Discovery is a legal concept used by European colonizers to justify their monarch’s claim to sovereignty over the “vacant” lands (terra nullius) and non-Christian people of Turtle Island. Colonizers and settlers rationalize occupation based on the misleading idea that the land was unoccupied and neglected when Europeans arrived.4(footnote)


Essentialism is the belief that groups of people have a true nature that does not change. The stereotypes that “men are strong and women are weak” are examples of this thinking.


Ethic is “the capacity to know what harms or enhances the well-being of sentient creatures.”5(footnote) There are many different kinds of ethical approaches. Medical ethics and bioethics are focused on questions that arise from molecular genetics and reproductive science, and they carry a moral imperative to improve human life through the application of science.6(footnote) Apart from perpetuating eugenical principals, this moral imperative denies and negates living with disability. At stake is our society valuing the vitality of non-normatively embodied people and not trying to make them disappear simply because they do not fit the norm.7(footnote) Rights-based ethics, utilitarian, and consequentialist ethics justify actions based on the idea of the greater social good (the improvement of the human race) in the future (the consequence of coercive measures is good). For eugenicists, individual rights are subordinate to their assumptions about the larger collective good.


Ethnocentrism refers to judging other cultures based on standards and norms from one’s own cultural perspective. An example of this is the idea that all food should be eaten with a knife and a fork — a European perspective(or Eurocentrism) since many other cultures use different ways to eat food.

Eugenics and Euthenics

Eugenics tried to socially engineer the improvement of the human race by applying the science of evolution to human populations through biology, heredity, and controlled reproduction. Eugenicists thought that social problems were caused by the existence of deviant and inferior people, instead of understanding that social problems are caused by social, political and economic circumstances. Eugenicists believed they could solve social problems and make the human race better by preventing certain kinds of people from being born and allowing some kinds of people to die. To achieve this goal in Canada, the government used methods such as sterilization, birth control and institutionalization, primarily targeting Indigenous, disabled, Black and poor people (negative eugenics). Eugenicists also advocated controlled selective breeding of human populations with the aim of improving the population's genetic composition (positive eugenics).

Examples include marriage laws, immigration laws, birth control measures, Residential Schools.

Euthenics (also known as domestic science and home economics) tried to socially engineer the improvement of the human race through environment, behaviour, mental and physical habits, hygiene, and use. Examples include the removal of children from their families (60s scoop, Children’s Aid Societies), Industrial and Training Schools, Residential Schools, behavioural modification therapies, physical fitness regimes.

The difference between eugenics and euthenics was summarized early on by American euthenics leader, Ellen Richards:

Eugenics deals with race improvement thru [sic] heredity; euthenics deals with race improvement thru environment; eugenics is hygiene for future generations; euthenics is hygiene for the present generation; eugenics must await careful investigation; euthenics precedes eugenics, developing better men [sic] now, and thus inevitably creating a better race of men in the future.8(footnote)

A well-accepted scientific theory by Charles Darwin that argues that forms of life change and adapt over time through what Darwin termed “natural selection.” Some people assumed that evolution meant progress or betterment. Others claimed wealth and privilege was evidence of certain humans being more evolved than others. This supported and justified an acceleration of the idea that those with the most wealth and privilege in society were also the most evolved or fit. This idea is also known as survival of the fittest. Those invested in human race betterment attempted to accelerate evolution towards racial fitness. Darwin’s nephew Francis Galton, applied evolution to human society, founding the eugenics movement. Eugenicists interpreted evolution through ableist and racist ideas, seeking to eliminate the kinds of people they thought were “unfit” or “subnormal.”


Fatphobia is the fear of fat and the discrimination and prejudice of people who are fat/thick/plus-sized. Also note the term fatmisia means hatred of fat people. (Explore ReVisioning Fitness for more on the relationships between fatphobia and fitness).


Is a system of attitudes, biases, and discrimination in favour of female–male sexuality and relationships. This includes the presumption that other people are heterosexual or that female–male attractions and relationships are the only norm and therefore superior to queer attraction. Heteronormativity assumes a gender binary and that sexual and marital relations are between people of opposite sex (i.e., male-female assigned at birth), which is promoted as the preferred sexual orientation in society. (Explore ReVisioning Fitness for more on the relationship between heteronormativity and fitness)


The term hierarchy in these modules means the social and economic ladder that allows only a few groups of people to rise to the top to enjoy greater wealth, power, and prestige. Most of the population are at the lower levels of the ladder.

Home Economics/Domestic Science/Euthenics

A set of ideas and practices that deals with the relationship between individuals, families, communities, and the environment in which they live. At Macdonald Institute, students learned about household management, including cooking, dietetics, cleaning, and sewing. Students also learned child study, mothercraft (the knowledge and skill of caring for children), psychology, physiology, and eugenics.

Human Race Betterment

In Canada, efforts to improve the Euro-Canadian race in the early twentieth century came from concerns about perceived social problems and race decline. Leaders in government and institutions hoped to solve a wide range of social problems by controlling who reproduced by making moral interventions into people’s lives to re-educate and re-socialize those who threatened the race and class ideals of Euro-Canadian settlers. Sciences dealing with improving human biological and heredity (such as eugenics and genetics) and human environment (such as euthenics, home economics, or domestic science, hygiene, education, nutrition, and medicine) informed their race betterment ideas and actions.

Canadian race betterment was led by white settler impulses to erase difference is an extension and acceleration of colonial ideas and practices. It assumed all life could be controlled and developed in only one direction of progress and increase efficiency. The idea of improving the human race shifted over time to improving the Canadian race, which shows a shift towards increased nationalism, white supremacy, and ableism in the lead up to World War II.


Imperialism is an idea and a policy of expanding an empire by using military force or other means to gain political and economic control over another area.

Indigenous Peoples

This term refers to the original inhabitants of a specific territory. They might be First Nations of what is now called Canada, or from somewhere else in the world, such as Africa or Australia. Whenever possible, we use the name that groups use to identify themselves, such as Anishinaabe (Original People). However, the term Indigenous is sometimes also broadly used to speak about these groups collectively, or in relation to discussions of colonialism. The term is also a form of panism that feeds into assimilation. For example, in Canada, it removes the understanding of Nation-to-Nation agreements and tries to make Indigenous peoples another category of the Canadian Settler Nation. As Mona Stonefish states, “we must always locate ourselves, otherwise we disappear.”


Kimberlé Crenshaw created the word intersectionality to describe overlapping systems of oppression. It means that not everyone experiences disability or exclusion the same way. For example, some of us experience disability in a way that is also shaped by our experiences of race, gender and sexuality.


Institutions are “any place, facility, or program where people don’t have control over their lives.” (Definition by Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, 2012).9(footnote)


As Peter Park states, “Institutionalization is the act of forcing someone to live in an institution. It is also a process designed to regulate social behaviour.”

Land acknowledgement

Land acknowledgement asserts the land rights of Indigenous peoples. It is often given at the start of an event. In this course, we call attention to First Nations and other Original Peoples unique relationship to their ancestral territories and on-going governances as treaty signing independent nations. Land acknowledgements disrupt the routine and unthought occupation of Indigenous lands by settlers. These land recognitions point to the need for reparation and force us to think about what changes are needed in settler societies in order to make that happen. (This definition was originally co-developed by Anishinaabe Elder Mona Stonefish and Anishinaabe scholar Dolleen Tisawii-ashii Manning for the exhibition Into the Light: Eugenics and Education in Southern Ontario).

Land-based learning

Land-based learning is learning in relation to land. As Mona Stonefish states, “language, traditions, and the land are the most important things. Our DNA is in the land and has been for 1000s of years. Water is being depleted. We need the wetlands. We also need clean drinking water.”


Mothercraft is an area of study involving the knowledge and skill of caring for children.

Natural Selection

Scientist Charles Darwin developed the idea of natural selection as part of his theory of evolution. Natural selection is the idea that organisms that adapt best to their environments tend to survive and produce more offspring. This means that the varieties of a species that are most suited to survive in an environment are also the most likely to have offspring and pass on these traits. It is an unpredictable process.


A political ideology based on competition, individualism, and consumerism. It is also based on the belief that privilege and success is the result of hard work, which ignores social inequities and casts oppression as a person’s fault or wrongdoing (e.g., a person is unhealthy because they make bad life choices or did not work hard enough). For example, someone being perceived as unfit or unhealthy because they do not spend “enough” hours engaging in physical activity. Neoliberal policies stress two fundamentals of capitalism: deregulation (i.e., the removal of government control over industry) and privatization (i.e., the transfer of ownership, property, or business from the government to the private sector). (Explore ReVisioning Fitness for more on the relationship between Neoliberalism and fitness)


Normal is a word that has changed meaning over time. Once the word referred to a measuring tool. The word has since become an instrument constructed for the purpose of controlling human beings – their biology, movements, appearances, behaviours. In Lennard Davis’ book, Constructing Normalcy, he writes:

words describing the concept ‘normal,’ ‘normalcy,’ ‘normality,’ ‘norm,’ ‘average,’ ‘abnormal’ – all entered the European languages rather late in human history. The word ‘normal’ as ‘constituting, conforming to, not deviating or differing from, the common type or standard, regular, usual’ only enters the English language around 1840. (previously, the word had meant ‘perpendicular’; the carpenter’s square, called a ‘norm,’ provided the root meaning.”10(footnote)

The word normative means the actions, behaviours, or outcomes that are considered good, desirable, or allowed, which makes it seem like these are normal and that all people should be the same. It also suggests that other ways of being are undesirable and deviant.


Policy is a deliberate system of ideas to guide decisions and practices and achieve specific outcomes. A policy is a statement of intent that is put into action as a procedure or protocol.


Prejudice means having discriminating ideas either in favor of or against a person or a group of people. It occurs when we assess or pre-judge others according to biased views that are formed from pre-determined stereotypes.


Pretendian is a word commonly used to refer to people who claim to be Indigenous yet do not have that lived experience. They say it was their experience. But it wasn’t. According to Mona Stonefish, “People with privilege take our stories and use them as their own.”


Privilege is a word that describes the benefits and advantages that a person receives because they are a part of a group whose position in society is believed to be more important, valuable, or desirable than others. For example, groups that tend to have privilege in our society, include white people, men, able bodied people, and wealthy people.


The term race or racial group refers to categories of humans based on physical and visual traits such as skin colour and hair. Categories based on visible appearance is called phenotype. Categories of race based on phenotype were first proposed over 200 years ago. Eugenicists applied the idea of biology and genetics, or genotype, to the idea of racial categories. Today, many scientists argue that race is a social invention that has no scientific basis.


Racialized is a process by which nondominant groups are always marked and noticed; while the race of dominant groups (white Anglo-Saxon people) is usually invisible, natural, and not worth noting.


Racism is systemic discrimination against certain non-dominant racial groups based on the belief that some races are better than others. In North America, groups that experience racism include First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, Black people, and people of colour (POC), whereas white people are the dominant, ruling group who are believed to have the most social value.

Eugenics is a form of scientific racism, which mis-uses science to make it seem like racist ideas are based in biological facts. Eugenic scientists measured what they saw as physical characteristics of race, such as skin colour, facial features, and hair type, and linked these with moral and intellectual characteristics. They used science to make it seem like social inequality is natural and that people who experience social problems — that is, racialized or poor people — are inferior; meanwhile, the people who benefit most from social privileges — that is, white and/or wealthy people — are superior.

Residential School

Residential schools were a system of schools in which First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children across Canada were placed by church and government authorities to assimilate them into the dominant White settler culture. In Canada, residential schools were in operation for over 150 years; the last school finally closed in 1996.


Sanism is discrimination against people with lived experience in mental healthcare systems or institutions. For example, using phrases such as, “you’re crazy.” (Explore ReVisioning Fitness for more on the relationship between sanism and fitness)


Segregation is an action or a state of separating someone or a group of people from other people. Students experience segregation when they are separated and kept apart from other students due to learning challenges. The goal of putting the “feeble-minded” in institutions was to separate them from the rest of society. People can experience racial segregation in communities, countries, and establishments.

Settler/Settler Privilege/Settler-Colonialism

Settler is a word used by some people to acknowledge their relation to their ancestors who colonized Indigenous land. The phrase “settler privilege” is used to describe the ways that settlers today benefit from colonialism. Europeans invaded the Americas and tried to eradicate Indigenous peoples to occupy and take from the land. They did this by establishing European colonies for settlers and encouraging them to occupy and use the land for personal profit.


Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against people who identity (or partially identify) as woman, based on sex or gender assigned at birth. This is associated with stereotypes and assumed gender roles and the belief that people who are assigned male at birth or people who identify as man are naturally superior to women. (Explore ReVisioning Fitness for more on the relationship between sexism and fitness)

Social constructionism

The idea that people are the way they are because of their physical, social, and cultural environments.

Social Darwinism

Herbert Spencer developed the idea of Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century. The idea overextended Darwin’s idea of natural selection to social progress. Spencer believed social progress would happen through a process of “survival of the fittest” (the idea that humans compete for survival—the strong survive and dominate in power and the weak disappear). Eugenicists used social Darwinism to justify and rationalize imperialism, colonialism, and subsequent systemic inequalities.


Sterilization is a process or an act that makes a person unable to have a baby, unable to sexually reproduce. Sometimes sterilization is voluntary. Sometimes sterilization is forced. Forced sterilization happens when a person is sterilized after saying no to the procedure or without that person’s knowledge, without being given an opportunity to give permission. People are pressured into sterilization when financial or other rewards, misinformation, or fear-mongering efforts are used to pressure an individual to have the procedure. People with disabilities are especially vulnerable to forced sterilizations performed under the cover of legitimate medical care or the consent of others in their name.

Survival of the Fittest

“Survival of the fittest” is the late nineteenth century idea that humans compete for survival—the strong survive and dominate in power and the weak disappear. (See “social Darwinism” for more information).

Systemic Discrimination

Systemic discrimination means that racist, ableist, and classist ideas are deeply embedded in society and this creates barriers to equality. Racism, ableism, and classism unjustly influence access to employment, legal outcomes, and access to medical care and education. Racism, ableism, and classism are also expressed in peoples’ attitudes and individual behavior through acts of discrimination, hostility, and violence.


A treaty is a formal agreement between nations or countries both historically and today. First Nations and Inuit leaders understand treaties as living agreements between nations that ensure the well-being of all people, beings, and the land. Colonial leaders have, historically and today, used treaties as agreements that ensure their continued access to power and control over land, animals, and people.

According to the legal scholar Willie Ermine, “The treaties between the First Nation and the Crown are historical models of how negotiation can happen between nations as the representations of diverse human communities. These treaties are nation-to-nation dialogues, between one human community and another, with each party supported and informed by their own autonomy and their respective political and cultural systems.”11(footnote)

Education is a Treaty Right.

Turtle Island

Turtle Island is the original, pre-colonial name of the land that today is now called North America. Turtle Island was and is still the name for the land used by First Nations and allies who are working towards decolonization.


Violence is when someone attacks someone else, often to get them to do something they do not want to do by making them feel pain or fear. Violence can be anything from verbal acts that hurt someone to a war between many countries that causes millions of deaths. Different people may see different acts as violent. Violence can be:

  • verbal: insults, name calling, or anything that hurts another's feelings.
  • physical: fighting, killing, or hurting another;
  • sexual: when a person makes someone else subject to sexual actions they do not want; e.g. rape
  • cultural: attempts to erase someone’s worldview, language, traditions
  • symbolic: ideas, structures, practices, and norms that foster dynamics of power and subordination;
  • racial: when a violent act is motivated by race or nationality.
  1. Robert McRuer and Merri Lisa Johnson, “Proliferating Cripistemologies: A Virtual Roundtable,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 8, no. 2 (2014): 149-169,242, p. 167,

  2. Paulo Freire, Donaldo P. Macedo, and Ira Shor, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, 50th anniversary edition (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).

  3. Carla Rice, Susan D. Dion, and Eliza Chandler, “Decolonizing Disability Through Activist Art,” Disability Studies Quarterly 41, no. 2 (June 15, 2021),

  4. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015.

  5. Willie Ermine, “The Ethical Space of Engagement,” Indigenous Law Journal 6, no. 1 (2007): 193–203, 195.

  6. Jackie Leach Scully, Disability Bioethics: Moral Bodies, Moral Difference, Feminist Constructions (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

  7. Scully, Disability Bioethics (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

  8. Mrs. Melvil Dewey quoting Dr. Ellen Richards in the 1914 proceedings for a National Conference on Race Betterment. National Conference on Race Betterment (1st : 1914 : Battle Creek, Mich ), Race Betterment Foundation, and Emily F. Robbins, Proceedings of the First National Conference on Race Betterment, January 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 1914. Battle Creek, Michigan, (Battle Creek: Gage Printing Company, 1914), 99,

  9. Self Advocates Becoming Empowered quoted in Liat Ben-Moshe, Chris Chapman, and Allison C. Carey, eds., Disability Incarcerated (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2014), 14, See Chapman 2014,14)

  10. Davis Lennard, “Constructing Normalcy,” in Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body (London; New York: Verso, 1995), 23–39, p. 24

  11. Willie Ermine, “The Ethical Space of Engagement,” Indigenous Law Journal 6, no. 1 (2007): 193–203,, 200.