a grandfather is laughing with his teenaged grandson with Down Syndrome

Is “Special Needs” Still the Right Label?

What is a Disability?

The spectrum of disabilities is long and wide. However, a disability is broadly defined as any limitation in activity that may prevent someone from learning, participating, or interacting like his peers. Therefore, disabled people may require some type of intervention to support how they interact with the world around them. This intervention could be educational, medical, or require the use of a mechanical device.

Scratches heads. So what does that mean exactly?

An Educational intervention refers to someone requiring extra accommodations or modifications to support his learning. Whereas a Medical intervention is when an individual needs medication or other medical assistance/support. We are probably most familiar with a Mechanical intervention when discussing the Disabled community. A Mechanical intervention just means that a person requires a device to support himself in some way.

Here are some examples of disabilities:

  • A woman that is paralyzed needs to use a wheelchair. (mechanical device)
  • A man that is hard of hearing needs to use a hearing aid. (mechanical device)
  • A child with Dyslexia may listen to an audiobook to support himself while reading a novel. (educational support)
  • A student with Autism may use speech to text software when writing an essay. (educational support)
  • A child with ADHD may take medication to decrease hyperactivity and impulsivity. (medical intervention)
  • A student with Anxiety may receive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. (medical intervention)


See that was simple. Once the terms are properly explained, they are pretty easy to understand. 


So, What Should I Say Then?

I am by no means the expert in this area. Especially since how we describe things are changing all the time, particularly when we are describing people with disabilities.

So in case, you are unsure of the right “labels” to use in the Disabled community, here are some terms and phrases that may be useful:

  • Students with disabilities 
  • Specific learning disability 
  • Hard of hearing
  • Ear reading
  • Disorder is a medical term
  • Disability is a legal term
  • Visible and Non Visible disabilities
  • Accessible parking
  • Student in a wheelchair or student who uses a wheelchair
  • A child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

There are probably a few terms I should explain. Ear reading is most likely an unfamiliar term to you. It is often used in relation to people with Dyslexia or people that are visually impaired. Ear reading is when an individual “reads” using their ears rather than their eyes. With the prevalence of audiobooks, reading has become more accessible to the visually impaired and people with learning disabilities like Dyslexia. Ben Foss discusses ear reading in The Dyslexia Empowerment.

It may be strange to say “visible disability” or “non visible disability”, but they are actually common terms used within the Disabled community. Just like it sounds, a visible disability refers to a disability that can be seen. An example of a visible disability would be paraplegia. On the other hand, Diabetes would be a non visible disability because it is not immediately apparent. Non visible disabilities are also referred to as invisible or hidden disabilities. Be aware that people with invisible disabilities may be just as adversely affected and in need of accommodations and resources like those with visible disabilities. A disability is a disability. 

Related: Appropriate Terms to Use About Disability

Related: Disability Terms Chart

Some Things to Keep in Mind

“Person comes first. Disability comes second.” People with disabilities are people first! A disability does not define them. Rather than calling someone a schizophrenic, you would say a person with schizophrenia. The person comes first, both literally and figuratively.

Please be mindful that this is all just a guideline. Remember each person is different and there is no one size fits all solution. For example, people with Autism Spectrum Disorder may prefer to be called Autistic.

Realted: Read Madeline Ryan’s letter “I Don’t Have Autism. I’m Autistic.”

When in doubt, just ask, “How do you like to be identified?”

Changing the way you use language may seem like a daunting task or you may even think it is pointless. At some point, we must realize the importance of language and how it affects others. This is no different than the African American vs Black or Hispanic vs Latino terminology debate. Sometimes people of a particular group may use politically incorrect terms to define themselves as a way of building community and familiarity within the group. 

Language that is clearly demeaning or disrespectful to the individual is obviously not appropriate (i.e., retarded). Language that stigmatizes the individual should be reworded (e.g., confined to a wheelchair should become uses a wheelchair). Confinement has a negative connotation, but the need for a wheelchair is merely a fact. Although you will may make mistakes, at least you are cognizant of the affect that language has. Just remember that people with disabilities are people. Talk to them the same way you would anyone else and if you don’t know, then just ask. 


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