What’s in a name? ‘Disability’– it really is ok to say the word

white girl covering mouth with hand

By Stacey Spencer • JFCS Disability Services Manager

How many times have you heard the term “special needs?” You probably have heard it a million times by now. The phrase is used to refer to children, parents, programs and schools – the phrase is used ubiquitously. But is it the best phrase to use when referring to someone with a disability?

Before we get into answering that, let’s look at the history of the phrase “special needs” and where it came from. To be honest, it’s not exactly clear where the term special needs originated; The National Center on Disability and Journalism said special needs was popularized in the U.S. in the early 20th century during a push for education to serve people with all kinds of disabilities. Another theory is special needs arose following the launch of the Special Olympics in the 1960s, according to a 2016 study.

The term special needs is vague, confusing and has become a catch-all phrase. It is used interchangeably to describe all kinds of disabilities and an assortment of diagnoses. The National Center on Disability and Journalism stated that “special needs” can refer to anything from “difficulty with reading at grade level” to “unable to complete the most basic tasks of daily living.” Confusing to say the least. 

The phrase special needs is not a legal term. “Never once (in U.S. laws) are children with disabilities or adults with disabilities referred to as children with special needs or adults with special needs,” said Morton Ann Gersbacher, psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin. “Rather, individuals with disabilities are always referred to in U.S. law as individuals with disabilities.”

Ok, now that we have some of the history of where the term special needs comes from, let’s talk about the negative ramifications about using it. First, it can lead to stigmatization. Researchers from the 2016 #SayTheWord campaign found that people who are referred to as having “special needs” are seen more negatively than those referred to as having a disability. Additionally, it also “others” people with disabilities – leading to more segregation and often being excluded from events and activities.

Special needs has become a euphemism to describe disabilities. Oxford Languages defines a euphemism as a “mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.” Other examples of euphemisms are saying employees were “let go” instead of fired, animals being “put to sleep” instead of euthanized, or “under the weather” instead of sick. The same goes for other disability-related labels that have been used in the past, such as “handi-capable,” “people of all abilities” and “differently abled.”

People with disabilities do not have “special” needs – they have human needs, as we all do. We all have the need to communicate, eat, be employed, partake in leisure activities, have access to healthcare and housing, and be engaged within our community. I had a conversation with the mom of an adult child with a disability – she told me, “My daughter’s needs are not special. She needs to communicate and to eat, go to school, get a job, have friends and leisure activities. How she will access them is different. But her needs themselves are not ‘special.’” The difference is not in what the person needs, but how their needs can be met.

In order to avoid using euphemisms for people with disabilities, what should we say instead? Many people, with and without disabilities, feel like it is time to retire the phrase “special needs” and replace it with the word “disability,” calling it what it is. I am hopeful that using the term disability instead of special needs can help create a society in which more people feel included, counted and celebrated. Isn’t that what we all want?

In that same vein, my work title at JFCS will be changing. Although I am not new to JFCS (I have been here since 2006) nor is my role of supporting Jewish people with disabilities in our community changing, we are changing the title of “Inclusion Program Manager” to “Disability Services Manager.” It turns out that the word inclusion was a euphemism for disability. Here at JFCS, we try to be at the forefront of best practices and that means it is really ok to say the word disability!

For more information, contact Stacey Spencer, Disability Services Manager at sspencer@jfcsmpls.org or 952-542-4845.