Good question. Glad You Asked.

So on Monday, the 20th Anniversary of the great Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), my friend James emailed an honest question to me and two former colleagues, Graham Mote, and Aaron Johnson (Graham, Aaron and I used to work together in Colorado teaching Special Education as well as doing work for Sky’z the Limit, a Colorado Nonprofit serving young people with and without disabilities). An interesting on-line conversation ensued that I figured I’d share. if you have any thoughts to add please feel free to comment.

—James Walton July 26 at 4:12pm—

Hey guys,

With the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act upon us, I have a strange question for you (that you may think totally shallow and stupid, but damnit I’m curious!)

How do you guys feel about the term “special needs”? It just seems like kind of a cheesy, soccer-mom kind of euphemism to me. I mean, doesn’t everyone have special needs of some sort? Maybe I’m clinging to the term “disabled” because I was told that’s the proper wording – but that was like 10 years ago.

Anyway, just curious to know if you guys agree.

—Nick Savarese July 26 at 3:21pm —

Apologies in advance for this long-winded reply but you basically threw a fastball right into my wheel-house with that question…

So all-in-all I think the term “special needs” is totally outdated. I think it comes from a time when people with disabilities were institutionalized and well-intentioned people were trying to give these people dignity. Basically, people w/ disabilities were considered lower-than life, and the term “special” actually lifted these folks to another level. Heck, I work for “Special Olympics”. I think there are better names out there but there is so much brand-recognition for the organization by now it probably wouldn’t be a wise decision to change it. Plus nobody asked me. So, anyways, I think all terms nowadays should be geared towards not separating people with disabilities form the greater population, but rather integrating them. However, there was a time and a place for the term “special needs”, but that time has passed.

That said, it is still a term that is used in the mainstream by well-intentioned people, and I certainly do not correct folks every time I hear it. Also, I was recently at an event where Tim Shriver, (The CEO of Special Olympics International, and a real visionary- and a Kennedy so he’s a magnificent public speaker) suggested changing the term “disability” to differant ability or “dif-ability”. Obviously, “dis” has a negative connotation. However, “diff’ or “different” also implies seperation, which is not a good thing, in my humble opinion.

Clear as mud? Good.

FYI – the generally- accepted most politically-correct terms (to the best of my knowledge – Graham may know better than me) are…. Using person-first language (i.e. someone is not autistic. they are a person with autism. They are not disabled. They have a disability. And someone who does not have a disability is referred to as “typical” as opposed to “normal”. For instance: “Organization X serves people with disabilities and their typical peers.”… as opposed to… “Organization X serves disabled people as well as normal people”.

Thanks for askin James. Hope that makes some sense.

—James Walton July 26 at 4:39pm—

Thanks Nick. That totally makes sense. I think part of what bothers me about the “special needs” designation is that it’s SOOO vague. Like the less descriptive the better, you know? George Carlin comes to mind…

“I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. ‘Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse.” .

And it’s interesting how much language effects the way we think about and understand things (as opposed to the other way around). The simple difference between just typing “the disabled” and “people with disabillities” makes a huge difference in how my mind visualizes the same group of people! The phrase “people with disabillities” has a palpable humanizing effect.

It’s interesting that the current “PC” term seems to be more humanizing instead of less, which I think can be a symptom of insisting on terms that are overly sanitized.

I wonder if grouping everyone with a mental illness or disabillity into one huge group has an alienating effect. Does a lack of specificity play a role in ignorance and xenophobia?

—Nick Savarese July 26 at 5:33pm—

It absolutely has an alienating effect. I always think about the classroom that Graham, Aaron, and I all worked in. We had kids who had basically been grouped together in the same class for their whole lives, and many of them had nothing in common with one another (Well they all loved to play hoops and sing Children’s songs, but I digress). Granted, they became friends – and they also had the opportunity to be mainstreamed into typical education classes with some regularity. That said, just because one person has down syndrome doesn’t mean he or she has anything in common, or needs to be grouped with another person with down syndrome. Or a kid with autism and a kid with (insert disability diagnosis here) don’t need to be grouped together just because they have disabilities. One individual with autism may have a lot more in common with a typical peer, but it has been historically really hard (though much easier since ADA and such) to connect people with disabilities to their peers without disabilities.

So I guess, yes, lack of specificity – or maybe – focusing too much on one specific element of one’s personality (i.e. disability, race, religion, etc…) certainly plays a role in ignorance and xenophobia.

Oh and LONG LIVE George Carlin! .

—Graham Mote July 26 at 5:50pm—

You guys are rad. Well stated and well put. I think Nick is right with the Person first language (although it’s been 3 years since I worked in Spec. Ed and has been longer since I took a class) I agree that it’s a difficult term to put language on. The dis is a dis, but the special is so obviously sugar coated that it’s condescending.

I remember when we were doing the Sky’s the Limit, and I realized at some point that I was pretty sports impared, and that Buzzy (ed note: Sp. Olympics athlete) was totally sports gifted and Joey (ed note: Special Olympics athlete) could sink 3 pointers like every time, and me and my son would go and have fun, and the lines were so blurred between who was being offered a recreational opportunity that they might not normally have…. And it’s cliche, but those kids definitely had something to offer, and skills that I didn’t. Terms like difability are ok, but seem sort of forced, at least until it catches on. But it’s almost impossible to capture the subtlty and nuances of that feeling of the worth of people that have trouble doing some things, but have other things to offer.

— Aaron Ukulele Loki Johnson July 26 at 7:31pm —

Anyway, Diffability is a cool idea, but yes, it seems forced. Language is interesting. I’m a word nerd, and I dig playing with language. But, at the end of the day, intention and understanding are more important than word choice…

What do you think? We certainly recognize that words are significant, and go a long way in shaping perceptions of people.


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