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 Or is it more likely that we are perpetuating the use of an outdated euphemism that serves to harm more than help?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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