Language can be a minefield, particularly when it comes to talking about disability. The words we use to describe people with disabilities has changed so much over the years that it’s tempting to dismiss the whole issue as political correctness gone mad.
But using the wrong language can make people feel offended and excluded. And, while changing language won’t necessarily change people’s attitudes towards disability, it is part of that process.
Which is why we at Netbuddy wanted to make sure we were getting our words right. We decided to conduct a survey amongst our followers – parents, carers and professionals. We asked them what terms they preferred when it came to describing the people they lived and worked with. Was it ‘learning disability’ ‘learning difficulty’ or ‘special needs’ … or was it something else entirely?
Turns out they had a lot to say ...
Learning disability was the preferred term, with 36% of the votes. Special needs was in second place with 23%.
A lot of people felt that ‘special needs’ referred to school-age children, whereas ‘learning disability’ was a more appropriate term for adults.
“I’ve often wondered why people stop being ‘special’ when they reach 18,” one person wrote.One or two said they felt ‘special needs’ was slightly patronizing.
“There’s nothing special about disability,” one person said. “I feel head-patted every time I hear someone use it,” said another.One parent, however, said she preferred ‘special needs’ because, "It encapsulates everyone the best."
Another said: “The only problem with ‘learning disability’ is it doesn’t cover complex medical needs, which my son has in addition to his learning disabilities. I think that’s why ‘special needs’ is popular too.”Several of our followers pointed out that people with autism or aspergers didn’t recognise themselves as having a learning disability, and many therefore preferred ‘special needs.’
Netbuddy’s parenting sibling advisor, Paula Dawson, made an interesting point:
“’Special needs’ infers additional ‘specialness’ which is unhelpful for siblings to hear,” she said. “Also, ‘special needs’ says nothing about what the person’s needs actually are.”A number of people said they used ‘special needs’ when talking to people who didn’t know much about learning disability. “I describe my daughter as having ‘special needs’ or ‘learning disabilities’ depending on who I’m talking to,” said one parent. “I gauge it on the situation and the context,” said another.
In fact, 11% of people who responded to our survey said they used various terms interchangeably.
A view that was summed up by one person, who said: “I think all the terms that are used have subtly different meanings, so they can all be used in different circumstances.”
Another term that provoked discussion was Learning difficulties which received 10% of the votes.
It is certainly a term that seems to be gaining in popularity, however the majority of our followers surveyed felt that ‘learning difficulties’ referred to conditions that affected learning, and often referred to a child’s academic attainment. Most people said it wasn’t appropriate for people with more complex needs.
“Our team would say learning disabilities when IQ is less than 70 and they are part of a specialist service,” wrote an occupational therapist. “Learning difficulties refers to conditions like dyslexia and dyspraxia.”The Warnock Committee has suggested that ‘learning difficulties’ should be used to refer to specific problems with learning that might arise as a result of issues such as medical problems, emotional problems and language impairments. Learning disability indicates an overall impairment of intellect and function.
“I think of ’Learning difficulties’ being something that people can grow out of – like problems with reading or language development, whereas ‘learning disabilities’ are permanent,” wrote one person. “Learning difficulty is mainly used in education,” said another.
Additional needs was preferred by 10% of our respondents.
“I prefer to use the term ‘additional needs’ as it simply suggests that an individual may need a bit of extra support and also relates to a range of needs,” said a family information and advice officer.
“If my son is listening, I say ‘additional needs’ as it sounds more respectful,” a parent wrote. “I’m training to be a speech therapist, and we use the term ‘additional needs’,” said one person. “I think it’s preferred by professionals.”
Special Educational Needs (SEN) received 4% of votes.
Although many people felt it was a term limited to school-age children. Solicitor Michele Michaelson said, “I prefer to use ‘Special Educational Needs’ because that has a specific legal meaning."
Complex needs received 3% of votes.
“I use the term ‘complex needs’ for people with profound multiple learning difficulties, “ said one person. Indeed, it seems to be a term most of you associate with severe learning disability.
“Complex needs means different things to different people, so I don’t think it’s a useful term,” said another.
“Complex needs tend to describe someone with a multi-faceted condition, rather than being a term that can be used to describe all people with learning disabilities,” wrote one parent.
“Complex needs is usually if a person has physical disabilities as well,” said another.
Sharing 1% of the votes were ‘Learning differences’ and ‘Mentally handicapped.’
“I know people say that ‘mentally handicapped’ is degrading, but at least it’s specific,” wrote one respondent. “I’m a community nurse for people with learning disabilities, and I think all the other terms are so confusing – even professionals get it wrong. We have so many inappropriate referrals from all sectors, including teachers and doctors.”And finally, a number of people pointed out that any label should always come second to the person.
“We always mention the child or young person first, and then follow on with their additional needs,” said one family support officer.Flo Longhorn, Principal consultant in special and multi sensory education summed it up perfectly by saying: "I certainly do not introduce myself as an 'internationally-known principal consultant with dyscalculia and a wonky thryoid!'"
In conclusion, perhaps, we should take our lead from one parent, who cautioned against being too precious about terms.
“People can be scared of saying the wrong thing, and that just creates more barriers,” she said. “Of course, if they say the wrong thing on purpose that is totally different, but even my friends have said things I wish they didn’t without meaning to be hurtful. Don’t we all do that?”