Call It What It Is

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I would love for people to stop using the term “special needs” when referring to Moses or other people with a disability. The next week, a couple of my friends at work asked me what I would rather people say if not “special needs”. 

Their question took me by surprise, but I was even more excited that after they read my post, they didn’t just dismiss my thoughts. It got them thinking and they were genuinely curious about what to say instead. (Yay!)

I realize that I left that last post unfinished because I did fail to offer an alternative for saying “special needs”. 

So what would I prefer you say when referring to Moses having Down syndrome or a disability? 

Exactly those words. 

‘Down syndrome’ and ‘disability’ are not bad words. They don’t mean bad things. They aren’t wrong to say in any way, shape, or form. So to not say them and try to sugarcoat what he has with something that sounds “nicer”, such as “special needs”, there is the implication that the other words are somehow bad or wrong. 

That a disability is a bad thing. 

That it’s bad to have Down syndrome.

That there’s something wrong with the person as a human being.

The implication may be subtle and seemingly harmless; however, the impact can be quite significant to those with Down syndrome or another disability. 

Do I think that my son is special? 

Absolutely. 

Moses is special because he is fearfully and wonderfully made exactly the way he’s supposed to be. (Just like you are.)  

HE is special, not his needs. 

I understand it might be hard to get out of the habit of saying “special needs”. It might seem like an inconvenience that isn’t really that big of a deal and not worth the effort. 

However, it is a big deal to those that fight against the stereotypes and challenges that come with being labeled “special needs”. It’s a big deal to the parents of children with disabilities that want nothing more than for their kids to be valued and accepted for exactly who they are. Please believe me that your effort is very much appreciated and does not go unnoticed.

So if it’s relevant to the conversation to include the fact that a person has a disability, then just say “disability” or the specific name for it, such as “Down syndrome”. You don’t have to whisper the words or look around to make sure no one outside of your intended audience heard them. I pinky-promise you that they are not bad or hurtful words in any way, shape, or form. 

Just call it what it is.

2 thoughts on “Call It What It Is

  1. I wanted to thank you so much for your blog. I follow it and I love it. I love this post and that you are addressing the idea of labels and what it means when we as a society “assign” terminology (sometimes negative without us realizing it) to a human being that deserves more. I also wanted to thank you for your blog in general as my son was diagnosed with Down Syndrome at birth in March 2020 and there are ony a lucky few I get to share this journey. I’ve also never been a fan of the term “special needs” especially because it is often used very mockingly now. However, I also am not a fan of using the term “disability” either. My son was labeled as “disabled” when he was about 6 days old and to me it made it sound like he was already “un-able” to do things his peers would be able to do…but what that beautiful extra chromosome will allow my son to do or not do in his life is still a question. This means personally, I don’t like the term “dis-abled” as much as I don’t like the term “special needs.” I started telling people I prefer the term “extra needs” because sometimes he may need a little extra help, but he is able to do what his peers can in time. I completely agree that the world needs to stop seeing Down Syndrome as a bad thing, so maybe you’re right the key is to stop putting groups of people who have what I like to call “extra needs” together in groups with one label such as “handicapped” or “disabled” and come right out and say “Down Syndrome.” Terminology and the equality of it is something I’ve thought a lot about too, I’m not sure quite what the answer is yet, but I appreciate you bringing it up on your blog as we figure it out.

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    • First of all, congratulations on your son! I know he’s not a newborn anymore, but nonetheless, congratulations!!! Secondly, I agree with you that I don’t particularly care to say my son has a disability, either, because, like you said, it seems to limit him before he’s even had a chance to realize what he’s capable of. I’m an elementary school counselor, and when I teach my students about disabilities, I tell them that I prefer to think of it in terms of “differently” abled instead of “not” able because it doesn’t attach the same level of limitations – preconceived or real – and shifts the focus on what people can do, even if it looks or sounds different. I think the longer I travel on this journey the more I see the endless beauty that extra chromosome brings to our lives and our world. So I’m with you that maybe we just say “Down syndrome” and continue to spread awareness of how amazing our kids and their extra chromosome are.

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