Should You Use Special Needs or Disabilities?

Have you felt conflicted with the many terms that are used to label your child and their challenges? While the “R” word has been retired (thankfully), there have been conversations about special needs vs. disability. The terms are often used interchangeably but there has been chatter about the preference of one word over the other to describe various situations.

Embracing the importance of the specifics of how we would like our child labeled is important to us. As parents, being forthcoming about how these labels make us or our child feel is a conversation that must take place. This dialogue is helpful as they further educate and ignite change and awareness.

The term special needs is all encompassing of many different diagnoses, which is why it’s a term that is commonly used and understood across many mediums. Whereas, the word disability for some parents is a label that makes them feel limitations have been placed on their child prematurely. In some cases, parents feel the term disability is directly associated with a physical impairment, which may not adequately describe their child’s situation. On the other hand, some people, such as Lawrence Carter-Long with the National Council on Disability, has been pushing #saytheword and use the term disabled to make people see the whole person.

No matter where your heart lies in the conversation, being an advocate for your child is always a priority. That’s why having a progressive approach by inviting an open dialogue surrounding these terms are important.

You can do this by allowing yourself to share with others how these terms make you feel. Also, establish which terms are better suited for your child. Being specific about how your child is seen in this world is important, so it’s OK to be vocal about those sentiments

Labels have the ability to make us feel ostracized and alienated, and when those feelings are placed upon our child it can feel isolating. Don’t allow these feelings to wreak havoc on you or your child. When terms are used that you feel are not in alignment with how your child is being described, be direct and address it before further insult takes place.

There is power in your voice, don’t be afraid to use it.


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This article originally updated on Jan. 15, 2020. It has been updated with the most recent information.

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