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Use Language to Put the Person Before the Disability

By DEBORAH KENDRICK · July 19th, 2006 · In My View
I received a letter not long ago from a reader who took offense at a reference I made to "special needs." All kids have special needs, I wrote; and this parent of a child with autism was furious that I didn't have a clue that autism was a bit more "special," say, than preferring smooth over crunchy peanut butter.

What she didn't understand -- and I'm here to tell you -- is that when I use that expression, it's usually with a kind of verbal wink, tongue in cheek, a dismissal of the ridiculous.

To get one thing straight before I digress, I do indeed recognize the extraordinary demands of parents caring for kids with autism or any other disability. But the channel I'm really on right now is language. Words. And which ones we use to refer to those people -- 54 million in America at last Census Bureau count -- identified as having some form of physical or mental disability.

In my view, "special needs" doesn't cut it.

Like women and blacks before them, Americans with disabilities have endured their share of unappealing epithets in the past century or two, disrespectful labels that only came under serious scrutiny in the past 20 years. We were called cripples, spastics, feeble-minded, deaf-and-dumb, retard -- and the list goes on. With so many heroes joining the ranks after World War II, a little more respect came into play. Federal programs were launched, techniques developed and paths to employment explored for the group that was then most commonly dubbed "the handicapped."

By the 1970s, as advocates organized and civil rights became a serious focus, language needed some overhaul, too. "The disabled" is what we were in the 1980s, and still lots of people were feeling uncomfortable with the tag.

I remember when, around 1990 or so, another journalist friend sent me a little clipping with a note attached. The Christina Foundation was offering a $50,000 prize to the person, anywhere in the United States, who came up with the best name for referring to people with disabilities.

"We should go for this and split the prize," was her jesty note.

We should have.

The contest was serious. The winning entry was "differently able" and, except for winning some lucky stranger a nice fat check, not much has become of it. That's OK with me because I wasn't too wild about the label.

The best thing that's happened with regard to language has been the "People First" movement. That is, put the person first, not the disability, i.e., a "man with cerebral palsy," a tennis player who "uses a wheelchair," an artist with quadriplegia, a plumber with bipolar disorder -- you get the idea. This works pretty well most of the time and avoids summarizing a human being as one single characteristic.

But the part I like best about the whole people-first concept is the people part. We are people -- not victims, sufferers, patients, defectives or unfortunates. Just plain old people.

But we were talking about special needs.

Now, in this collective attempt to come up with politically correct labels for people with disabilities -- and at about the same time as People First language was catching on -- some of us somewhere grabbed hold of "special needs." My first reaction was the gag reflex, and I was sure this one wouldn't stick.

Obviously, I was wrong.

The problem with "special needs" to refer to people with disabilities is that it doesn't. Everyone has special needs. My dog has special needs. If someone doesn't throw her toy and give her some affection every few hours, she's seriously depressed.

It is a meaningless label. It conveys nothing of substance, except, if you ask me, a certain degree of shame.

If you can't even speak aloud the name of a disability, then you are obviously either terrified or ashamed of it. What we need most is never to be either of those things.

Having a disability requires varying degrees of adaptation and other peripherals -- but no matter what that disability is, it is one part of a total package called a person. To value the person is to name that part just as you would any other. To say someone has special needs or is "physically challenged" is a discreet way of saying that there is one aspect of this person that is so appalling or disgusting or terrifying that we can't speak of it in polite company.

If reference to a person's disability is relevant to the conversation, then the best words to use are the obvious one. You just say "deaf" or "blind" or "has a learning disability," multiple sclerosis or autism. You say "Down syndrome" or "aphasia" or "spinal cord injury." Simple, clear, unashamed words that communicate as clearly as "tall" or "Hungarian" or "elderly" or any of the other words we use to be clear who and what in the world we are talking about.

Then, when you use those clear, honest words to refer to the disability you or someone else has, forget it and focus on the whole person.

contact Deborah Kendrick: letters@citybeat.com


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