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The term "developmental disability" was created to refer to "a disability attributable to mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or another neurological condition," and used for planning purposes and funding allocations.

In 1975, the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act made significant changes to the 1970 legislation and the term developmental disability was broadened to include autism and dyslexia. The Act was revised again in 1978 and the term developmental disability was again redefined. The severity of an individual's functional impairments was emphasized and references to specific disability categories were eliminated.

In 1991, Amendments to the Act included children and developmental disability was defined as: "a severe, chronic disability of a person 5 years of age or older which:

(a) is attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination of mental and physical impairments,

(b) is manifested before the person attains age twenty-two;

(c) is likely to continue indefinitely;

(d) results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activities:

(1) self-care,

(2) receptive and expressive language,

(3) learning,

(4) mobility,

(5) self-direction,

(6) capacity for independent living, and

(7) economic sufficiency; and

(e) reflects the person's need for a combination and sequence of special, interdisciplinary, or generic care, treatment, or other services which are of lifelong or extended duration and are individually planned and coordinated; except that such term when applied to infants and young children means individuals from birth to age 5, inclusive, who have substantial developmental delay or specific congenital or acquired conditions with a high probability of resulting in developmental disabilities if services are not provided."

The passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration was very important because of its long range implications for people with disabilities and families. The Act created a national insurance system for people who are elderly; established a federal-state unemployment insurance program; granted aid to states on a matching basis for dependent mothers and children, people with disabilities, and people who are blind; and supported public health services.