New Research Supports a Shift in Language Use - Why We Should Stop Using the Phrase Special Needs

Language use is top of mind for me lately.

Changing one’s language is a necessary and significant step in affecting lasting culture change; Removing the Stumbling Block

Maybe this is because it’s the time of year to focus on year-end forms and registration for next year. Maybe it’s because there’s more and more being written about language use as it pertains to gender and sexuality and I find myself thinking about how I believe the Disability Inclusion Movement lags behind by about 5 or so years. Or maybe it’s because I am just a self-professed grammar nerd and think about the nuances of language use on a regular basis. Probably it’s some combination of the three.

Special Needs…Disabilities…What’s the difference?

Do we really hear disabled and think broken? Removing the Stumbling Block

Over eighteen years ago my synagogue hired me as the Religious School’s Special Needs Consultant. Within a year that title changed to Special Needs Coordinator. A subtle shift, but one that we believed demonstrated our commitment to the permanence of our program. Today I serve as a full-time Education Director with oversight of our disability inclusion efforts. But if anyone asks me what I do for a living, my reply is typically that I am a Jewish Educator and a Jewish Inclusion Expert.

Why so much focus on the semantics? Isn’t it just a job title after all? Isn’t the work far more important than the label we attach to it?

A number of years ago my congregation’s Outreach Committee hosted a breakfast to explore creating a support group for parents and grandparents of children with disabilities. When I helped to edit the invitation, I chose to write “parents and grandparents of children with disabilities”, believing that it would make our message clear and would help to draw participation from the larger community. However, a member of the planning committee, a mother who’s son is on the autism spectrum, immediately wrote and asked me to change it to “special needs” because “it seems less harsh than the term disability; disability just has a more negative connotation”.

Is that true? Does disability really conjure up negative images? 

Do we really hear disabled and think broken? Maybe that is why we have to celebrate when a young girl with Spina Bifida is on the cover of Parents Magazine:

Or when a boy with Cerebral Palsy and his brother are Sports Illustrated Kids Stars of the Year?

I feel sad that these aren’t just “normal” occurrences in our society yet and work hard to advance the advocacy necessary to change such perceptions.

So I reflect on that parent's belief that “special needs” is much gentler than “disability”, and wonder if gentler is better? Or is it more likely that we are perpetuating the use of an outdated euphemism that serves to harm more than help?

There are many who will advocate the latter, that the euphemisms must go. Here's one from Emily Ladau: 4 Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust. And she is not alone. Many disability self-advocates argue that terms like special needs must be eliminated from our discourse to advance true inclusion.

I don’t have all the answers. While I respect the desire of the disability community and use the term disability almost exclusively in my writing and my work, I acknowledge that others disagree and have other preferences. 

Nevertheless, I will say this: The work I am honored to do is most definitely special. Maybe that’s enough.

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Creating Inclusive Teen Experiences

An inclusive teen program benefits everyone.

A teen community is stronger when individuals feel a sense of belonging and their value is celebrated; Removing the Stumbling Block

But building such a program will be challenging if you don't personally embrace a philosophy of inclusion. Unless you truly believe in the value of inclusion across every experience, you are bound to get stuck in notions such as, "Having her there takes something away from the other teens," or, "They shouldn't always have to look out for him." Until teen educators embrace the value of inclusion and recognize that an inclusive community is a stronger community for everyone, such fallacies will persist. 

A true highlight of my work as a Jewish Educator is leading experiences with teens. I have relished each opportunity to teach, guide, mentor, counsel and support this age group for over twenty years. And I am exceptionally proud of the unique model we have built in our congregation. We have created a structure that affords all students, regardless of ability or need, the opportunity to participate fully. Including overnight experiences. And it works.

Synagogues across North America lament a significant decrease in engagement with Jewish life post-bar and bat mitzvah, but when you ensure that any post b’nei mitzvah program is fully inclusive, you maximize opportunities to continue learning, growing and engaging with Jewish life experiences. Further, there is opportunity to socially engineer relationships between teens every step of the way, thereby maximizing their potential for developing strong Jewish friendships. 

Professor Steven M. Cohen of HUC-JIR states, “Jewish educators should have an explicit mission to bestow Jewish friendship networks on children and adults who are increasingly unlikely to find them on their own.”

Inclusive teen experiences are possible. Teens with disabilities are entitled to the same Jewish opportunities that their peers experience.  

Contact me to learn more about how to build an inclusive teen community.

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Celebrating a Life Well Lived - Honoring the Legacy of Rabbi Lynne Landsberg

Celebrating a Life Well Lived - Lynne Landsberg; Removing the Stumbling Block

I haven’t written in a while. 

It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say.

It’s more that I hadn’t quite figured out how to put what I want to say into words.

February was, once again, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. It remains, in its tenth year, an opportunity to raise up an issue that matters and spur to action those who might otherwise remain inert. But as the month drew to a close, we lost one of our own. We lost an incredible woman, teacher, friend, and rabbi, one so deeply committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities in our Jewish world and in all aspects of society. On February 26, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg lost a struggle with cancer at the age of 66.
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