The Words We Use

As an English major who also studied French, I find language fascinating. I love the etymology of words and their historical significance. I also like alliteration and idiomatic expressions. I love to play games with Andrew making up rhymes and reciting fairy tales that are often nonsensical, but also reflect centuries old terminology that was common vernacular or colloquial in a particular time and place.

I am working on learning and relearning some American Sign Language while also trying to expand my use of Spanish beyond hello, good bye and good day. The goal being to communicate with more students and meet them where they are so that we can begin to walk toward their goals together. 

That said, I don’t particularly enjoy labels or one size fits all terminology, but I also recognize that we need a system as a society to group people when determining abilities, gender, age, and other important demographics so that we can determine needs and create assessments. We make services available from education to medical care based on that information, and it is important to do so. When a child falls somewhere in general education or only needs occasional medical care or wellness visits then we tend to take for granted that the systems and services in place are just part of the cultural expectation. Our laws provide for education, extra-curricular activities and basic care for those in our society. 

However, if our children fall outside of this paradigm then it very quickly becomes apparent that there are needs that are not fully addressed. Many can’t agree on even the most politically correct terms. How do we talk about people, and especially children, without placing limiting beliefs or language onto those with a disability or those who need accommodations? So many parents reject labels, and rightfully so. Others bristle at outdated terminology that seems to minimize the person-first narrative that so many of us are striving to work toward. Even worse, we still hear words like “retarded” or “dumb” on the playground. I hated to even type these words, as they are so far from my ideal of dignity and respectful language. 

This brings me to the point that in my lifetime, we have come a long way with regard to respecting individuals with different needs by recognizing that some language is indeed demeaning at best. When I was in grade school, the term for kids with a low IQ was “mentally retarded.” I can barely believe it. The agency that focused on outreach for such individuals was called the MHMR. Literally, Mental Health and Retardation. The agency then changed to DADS, or the Department of Aging and Disability. Now it has all been moved to HHS, Health and Human Services which fits pretty broad methodology and can house a wide variety diagnoses and needs.

Since Andrew was born, we pretty much used the term special needs. For us it was a big umbrella that sheltered all of his physical and medical needs while also acknowledging his developmental delays, auditory processing and inability to test for intelligence. I still maintain that he is brilliant, but because he cannot perform on standardized tests or answer questions correctly about predictions or suppositions, we are at an impasse. At the end of the day, he cannot make executive decisions about his life, education, care or even how to live independently, so it makes sense that we landed where we did. I am reminded of the quote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

To further complicate the subject, many of us might remember a time in the 80’s when the term disabled itself was deemed pejorative. Back then, most of us knew people who had polio or babies who were affected by thalidomide. There was some backlash over the term disabled, as at the time, the implication was that people were “not able,” and deemed inappropriate by the politically correct powers that be.

It seems that recently there is a desire to return to the term disabled when referring to people with differing abilities or special needs, which was adopted as more of a catch all with reference to mental, physical or even spectrum diagnoses such as ADHD, ADD, autism and the like. I don’t really have a preference, I try to speak respectfully, as I am sure most people do. Nor do I have any great wisdom or know the answer but I do like the idea of having more conversations about it.I do believe that we often get too caught up in semantics and labels which are ever evolving as history proves. At the same time, I acknowledge that it may be time to change and grow again. To this end, I’d love to hear from you. What terminology do you use to describe your particular situation, diagnosis or disability? Is there anything about that term that bothers you? What language would you like to see parents, social services and the medical community use?  Please feel free to answer in the comments or to continue our discussion in the community.

Angela Lofton

1 thought on “The Words We Use”

  1. This was an interesting read! I don’t currently serve the special needs community, but I have supported inclusion students in the general education classroom in the past. I don’t know where I picked this up, but I always attempted to put the person first before the disability. “A student WITH special needs” instead of “special needs student.” It’s helpful to have these conversations and be open to adjusting our language after them. It just takes empathy and practice! Thank you for shedding some light on what you’re thinking as a parent to Andrew!

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