Early childhood intervention practitioners and families know how to talk about disability. However, in our everyday lives we often come across situations where being mindful of language, and the way it is used, can speak volumes in what it says to people about perceptions of ability. Most people are keen to talk about others in a way which is respectful, but such a wide range of terms and language are used. We may find ourselves worrying about political correctness and this can inhibit the way we communicate. Knowing the most acceptable way of referring to children or adults with developmental delay or disability can be confusing given there is such a wide range of terms and language used within general conversation, social media and by mainstream media.
Why does it matter what we say?
Use of language is important as it influences how people view others who have disabilities. Most people do not want to be defined by their impairments. While children are young and if their communication difficulties are ongoing, the adults in their lives are their most important advocates and set the tone as to how to talk about their disabilities. Changing a phrase – even if it holds the same literal meaning – can alter the subtle connotations of the language, and can communicate a different message and context than the original wording. We don’t want to accidentally impose an identity on a person which they did not choose.
“Seeing the child first and foremost to the disability is paramount. In addition to that, I also think to just think before speaking! It amazes me how many people don’t do this or that they become desensitized to language and how hurtful that can be to a family who are already feeling vulnerable. The littlest thing can have a huge impact on what a parent takes away from a session or consult. ” Natalie D’Abrew, mother of Sam aged 6 who has Down Syndrome.
What is the current recommended best language to use?
Currently, person-first language is seen as the most respectful and accepted way of referring to people with disability. Person-first use of language promotes reference to individual people, rather than presenting the view that disability defines the person. In line with the UN Convention, the Don’t Dis my Ability campaign and peak bodies such as People with Disability Australia, ECIA NSW/ACT promotes the use of ”person first” language in our communications.
It is generally recommended that the correct current clinical terms for disabilities are used and that we avoid terms which may have negative connotations or have come to be used in a derogatory manner.
” I think language and the terminology that educators and health professionals use is a really important topic and that the need to refresh that knowledge is also equally important. As a mum with a child with a disability, I think using correct and current medical terminology is important but it should come in conjunction with saying those things in a respectful way to have an open discussion that will help parents digest what is being said to them or to feel they can ask questions.” Natalie D’Abrew , mother of Sam aged 6 who has Down Syndrome.
What about the term “special needs”?
All people have needs, it is how they get their needs met or access these needs that may differ when a child or adult has a disability. By using the term “special needs” it can infer that a person who has a disability has needs which are different to others and could lead to the misconception that meeting these needs may be harder to do. An important aspect of inclusion is proactively ensuring that all people can access or have their needs met.
Many people with disabilities have said that being told that doing everyday things which other people do are “special” or “inspirational”, can seem unintentionally patronising.
As Stella Young once said “My everyday life in which I do exactly the same things as everyone else should not inspire people, and yet I am constantly congratulated by strangers for simply existing.”
Why do some people refer to themselves using disability-first language?
Some people who have a disability, make a conscious choice to use disability-first language when they refer to themselves. Autism is one diagnosis, where some people choose to refer to themselves as “autistic”. Some people may do so as they feel their diagnosis is an inherent key part of their identity. This is an individual choice made by each person.
For more information on why some people with autism choose to use disability-first language see here:
What’s the general rule of thumb?
As professionals, it is usually a good idea to continue to use person-first language in our general communications as this is recognised as current Australian best practice in our sector. In individual interactions with adults who have disabilities, asking people what they would prefer and then following their lead is a respectful approach.
The links to documents below provide more detail on why ECIA refers to children with developmental delay and/or disability.
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