Sticks and Stones

Which words to use when speaking to or about a special needs child.

Most of us are familiar with that annoying childhood rhyme: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!

But words do hurt! Words are especially powerful when used to describe the abilities of children.

Unfortunately, the words often chosen to describe kids with special needs are rarely those that enhance self esteem or celebrate their abilities. We can do better for our kids!

Top Ten List of Special Needs Dos and Don’ts for Language Use (when speaking to or about children with special needs):

  1. Use the most current, up-to-date terminology for those with special needs. (Hint: It is not handicapped, retarded or crippled). Special needs, exceptionalities and disabilities are the words most often used today to describe this population.
  2. Use the term handicapped only when talking about non-human stuff like handicapped parking for your van. And a reminder—don’t park in these spots illegally! You may be taking away someone’s valuable, hard-won, priceless freedom. If you need to access such parking, get a legal permit.
  3. Seek out the least restrictive labeling possible for your child. Be aware of what a label means before agreeing to use it. Some of these words may have lifelong negative impact on our children.
  4. Use proper terminology when addressing a child’s diagnosis, i.e. Debbie is a little person, not a dwarf or midget. John has cerebral palsy, not John’s spastic. Jane has intellectual disabilities, not she’s mentally retarded. Max has mental illness, not Max is insane. Julie has Down syndrome, not she’s a mongoloid. Sam has a brain injury, not he’s brain dead. See the difference in perceptions?
  5. Place all descriptive terms after the child’s name. Which creates a more positive image in your mind— Carrie, the artist who has Down syndrome, or that Down’s kid, Carrie? It does make a difference, especially to the person with the disability. When in doubt, remember this rule— today, the trend in society is increasingly toward using people-first language, always. Use names, not labels!
  6. Don’t even mention disability when speaking about a child if it isn’t necessary. Disability is only one part of who someone is; don’t make it the most defining one. It may limit his or her life choices.
  7. Don’t say a child is confined to a wheelchair. They are wheelchair users! How do they take a shower, use the restroom or sleep? Children are not attached to wheelchairs. Don’t make it sound like they are. And don’t say Johnny suffers from cerebral palsy. How do you know he’s suffering? Better just to say Johnny has cerebral palsy. Simple word changes equal big differences in perception.
  8. Use typical or regular instead of normal when referring to children. There really is no such thing as normal. Most children have some kind of special need (as do most adults!). Some needs are just more obvious to the eye.
  9. Don’t ever highlight a child’s challenges or perceived shortcomings if it’s not necessary.
  10. Use the word “challenges” instead of “problems” when referring to a child’s needs. This simple word shift may help change the way you view your demands, helping you work toward more positive solutions.

Words are mighty powerful. Be careful how you choose them and how you use them.