PERSPECTIVES | Disabled? Special Needs? Disability rights and the importance of language

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017
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In June, it will be two years since we changed our name from Resources for Children with Special Needs to INCLUDEnyc. We changed our name because we believe language is powerful and we wanted to better reflect who we are and what we believe.

To celebrate our anniversary, this edition of PERSPECTIVES explores the evolution of disability language, and the conversation surrounding how language is commonly used today in our community.
“Disability” vs. “Special Needs”
The “disability” vs. “special needs” debate is complex. During the past fifty years, the term “special needs” became popular in special education and the disability service systems as a way to describe the accommodations students and individuals with disabilities need to learn and live fully. It also came into use in response to words that were perceived as discriminatory (such as retarded, for example).

However, many individuals — both with and without disabilities — argue that the needs of people with disabilities are not special and that education, equal rights, and employment are needs that all human beings share.

One must qualify as a person with a disability, not a person with special needs, under federal education and civil rights laws to obtain the services and supports provided through special education and Medicaid-funded community services. Today, many activists also believe that using the word “disability” helps change its negative association by claiming it as a positive part of a person’s identity.
“Person-first” vs. “Identity-first” language
Person-first language is used to establish a person as a human being first, and his or her identity second. For example, one might refer to a person with a disability versus a disabled person. Many believe person-first language combats the labeling and stereotypes that people with disabilities experience by reframing the way they are spoken about in society.

However, person-first language is not universally accepted by everyone in the community. Some advocates maintain that person-first language doesn’t always put the person first, and doesn’t allow a disabled person to fully embrace his or her identity. These advocates favor identity-first language.

Ultimately, how people with disabilities wish to identify is their choice. As language further evolves, each member of the disability community — people with disabilities, their family members, and circles of support — will have to choose the language that feels right to them.