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

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

Language use is top of mind for me lately. 

Maybe this is because it’s the time of year to focus on forms and registration. 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.

Regardless, this is most definitely not a new topic for me. Read:
Choosing Our Words Carefully [Using the Words You Really Intend] 
Special Needs…Disability…What’s the Difference? 
Disabilities vs. Special Needs - It's Time to Use the Words We Truly Mean.

I have been thinking a lot about the use of the term “special needs”. The amazing team at Kids Included Together has just published some research around the Top 5 Trends in Disability Inclusion 2018. I highly suggest you read all of it. The part that caught my eye most was the section entitled, Special Needs is a Euphemism. That this is noted in national research as a trend is exciting. In particular, having data to back up what many already assert and believe, is powerful. This report cites that "the phrase ‘special needs’ has recently been determined ineffective by researchers at the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Kansas, who found the phrase to be associated with more negativity and to evoke more unanswered questions than ‘disability.’”
I have almost completely removed the use of the phrase "special needs" from my writing and discourse around disability inclusion, and I would like to suggest that others consider the same. (I'll come back to the "almost" in a moment.)

To further explore the rationale and intent behind this necessary shift in language I point to pieces written by self-advocates assert that the term "special needs" is a euphemism that is not only useless, but in fact harmful.

Emily Ladau, another self-advocate (who is Jewish, but does not focus her advocacy on Jewish disability inclusion specifically) wrote: 4 Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust

Returning to my statement of "almost" from above; in determining how we should refer to others, we most certainly should use the language that they choose for themselves. (This seems logical and obvious of late with gender, less so around disabilities.) There are those (primarily parents, I believe) who still prefer the term "special needs" to describe their children with disabilities. Regardless of one’s reasons or whether a person has yet to learn enough to change their mind in this area, personal choice rules the day. So if someone specifically refers to his/her/themself or his/her/their child with the term "special needs", I will use it in conversation and discourse with them. Hence, my statement of “almost”.

Changing one’s language use may seem subtle, but I would suggest that it is a necessary and significant step in affecting lasting culture change. 

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