Special Needs…Disabilities…What’s the difference?

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

Sixteen years ago my synagogue hired me as our 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 I do far more important than the label we attach to it?

My congregation’s Outreach Committee hosted a breakfast to explore starting 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”, thinking that it would make our message clear and might help us 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? 

Have we made no genuine advances as a society? 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.

Is “special needs” just that much gentler than “disability”, and is gentler better? Or are we perpetuating the use of an outdated euphemism that serves to harm more than help?

Honestly, I don’t have the answers. I prefer the term disability and use it almost exclusively in my writing and my work. But I know that there are others who disagree, and I acknowledge that. 

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

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