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Rolling with the Times: Updating Our Language

Originally published:

child with delay playing

Illinois Early Learning (IEL) provides free and evidence-based resources to parents, caregivers, and teachers in the field of early childhood education. One of our avenues for providing information is through our blogs, which are informal, relatable articles. For many years, one of our blogs has been titled Children with Special Needs. We are changing the name of this blog to Children with Disabilities and Developmental Delays and want to share our reasoning with you.

Many terms and phrases fit a particular moment in time but become outdated as time passes and our understanding evolves. “Groovy!” fits right in when we are watching reruns of The Brady Bunch but feels out of place if used in daily conversation. Similarly, many members of the disability community (parents, teachers, individuals with disabilities) are moving away from the term special needs and opting for the term disabilities.

At IEL, we have decided to use the term disabilities as well. However, because much of our work focuses on young children (infants, toddlers, and preschoolers) who have developmental delays but not a specific disability, we feel it is important to acknowledge that group in our blog title as well. Hence the switch from Children with Special Needs to Children with Disabilities and Developmental Delays.

Why the change?

There are a few key reasons for our change in terminology. They include the intent to be more accurate and a strong desire to show respect to the disability community. With that said, we realize that we will not please everyone, and that some individuals prefer the phrase special needs.

Being more accurate

The term special needs is essentially a euphemism, or a way of saying something in an indirect way, often to avoid an uncomfortable topic, such as saying “between jobs” instead of “unemployed.” However, more people are recognizing the truth that there is nothing wrong with having a disability; it is simply one characteristic of many that may define an individual. In fact, having a disability is a natural experience of the human condition, so there is no reason to hide that fact by using vague or ambiguous terminology.

In fact, stating that a person has a disability, and naming that disability specifically, is much more accurate and helpful. For example, if I know that a person is blind, I can make sure my in-person communication with that person is based on spoken conversation and does not rely on nonverbal messages such as shoulder shrugs, nodding, or a “thumbs up.”

That said, we only need to discuss a person’s disability if it is relevant to the conversation. If I see a little girl with hearing aids at the grocery store, it would not be appropriate for me to ask the caregiver, “What is her disability?” However, if I am a teacher welcoming her as a new student in my class, it would be relevant for me to know that she is Deaf. When planning a curriculum, knowing her specific disability is much more useful than knowing she has “special needs.”

Showing respect

Many members of the disability community have begun to speak out against terminology that avoids the word disability and have advocated for simply “telling it like it is.” Examples of phrases that may be offensive or patronizing include special needs, people of all abilities, and differently abled.

Using accurate terminology shows respect for individuals with disabilities, many of whom have pointed out that their needs (for food, shelter, self-care, socialization, education, etc.) are not special at all. Everyone needs these things! As Lauren Potter, a popular actress with Down syndrome states in a PSA video, “If people with Down syndrome needed to eat dinosaur eggs, that would be special!”

Acknowledging individual choices

As we make this move to update our terminology, we also realize that language is subjective and holds different meanings for different people. Individuals with disabilities and their families should choose language that feels right to them. Preferences could include:

  • He has special needs
  • He has a disability
  • He has cerebral palsy

People also may have a preference for person-first language, which puts the person before the disability (the boy with autism), while others may make a deliberate choice to use identity-first language (autistic boy). Individual choice is important.

Our recommendation for early childhood professionals is to start by using person-first language without euphemisms (child with autism, toddler with cerebral palsy). If individuals or families express a different preference, professionals can and should validate that choice by using their preferred terminology as consistently as possible. And, when in doubt, simply call a person by his or her name!

Emily Dorsey

Emily Dorsey

Dr. Emily Dorsey (edorsey@illinois.edu) is project director of the Illinois Early Learning Project. She earned a Ph.D. in special education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015. She has worked as an early childhood special education teacher, an educational consultant, and most recently as a faculty member at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program
  • Kindergarten
  • Home
  • Family Child Care

Intended audience(s):
  • Faculty / Trainer
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2020