Do we need to revisit the terms we apply to individuals with physical impairments?
There is a lot of online conversation currently regarding the “proper” labels to affix to our kids' neurological or physical conditions. Even in typing that sentence, I'm struggling to find completely objective terminology! The debate seemed to start with whether the term “disabled” is still appropriate and acceptable universally, or whether “special needs” ought to replace it. From there, conversations spiral into the introduction of several terms – neurodivergent, additional needs, chromosomally atypical, and on. The concern of parents seems to be two-pronged: which label should be adopted for government services, and which should be used within society at large.
Let's talk about the term “disabled” and why people prefer it, or not. This term has long been used to describe an individual's gross motor impairments, whether they are neurologically or physically based. It is the term most used within government agencies (at least in the U.S.) that provide support and services to these people. Some would argue that this term – given its longevity and the general understanding of it by those outside of its scope – should continue to be used universally.
However, many people take offence at the term “disabled” because it implies that, based solely on physical facts, a person is not able to do what others can. Within our community, there is an understanding that this is false; our loved ones born differently are fully functioning and capable in many capacities. So, while their physical attributes might differ from the norm, there is a good reason not to pigeonhole them with a value-laden term.
Now onto “special needs” as the preferred language. Why do many people feel more comfortable with this terminology? For one, it is broader, covering many different types of needs: physical, emotional, social, educational, sensory, etc. The flip side is that if you start with a broad term, it necessitates more explanation. And this will occur nearly every time you use it. Also, many parents object to the word “special” because they feel that, since all humans have imperfections, their children really aren't special at all. Rather, they are just like any other peer, with varying needs at different times of life. Furthermore, some believe “special needs” has a childlike connotation, and using it in one's adulthood feels wrong. The final terms being discussed are more scientific: “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent.” But again we run into a problem here, namely that many individuals' needs are not brain-based in nature, thus negating the universality of the words.
So, essentially, we're right back where we started. There are no true general terms to describe our community's population. And in our attempt to find one, we can lose sight of why we're looking in the first place. What we really desire is for our diverse community to be accepted despite their differences, not because they are easily understood by the labels we attach to them.
Personally, I go into a conversation with a curious stranger with no expectations. They may know little to nothing about the conditions affecting my child, and it is my duty (and pleasure) to educate them. It doesn't really matter how I choose to explain my son's physical or social abilities. The important outcome is that my son's mere presence in the world as someone outside the norm is recognized and normalized.
So, use the terms you want. Don't get hung up on how they are interpreted by that outside of our community. Don't get hung up with other parents or caregivers on their preferred terms either. Do keep participating in the world, advocating, and educating. The labels will disable themselves.