How the language of special education denigrates kids with disabilities

Growing up in the 90s, I remember the phrase "differently-abled" being upheld as a synecdoche for the absurdity of "PC language." And as a kid, I almost certainly fell in line with accepting that it was all a bunch of silly stuffy rules.

Of course, as I've gotten older, I have come to understand how the way that we refer to people can really affect the way we view them. While "differently-abled" is probably not the most helpful terminology, things like person-first language do make a difference (and in the case of autism, that difference might be rejected by some people, for equally valid reasons). Unfortunately, even as our language around these things has changed and evolved since the 90s, the ways we classify and categorize certain types of people can still be harmful in unintended ways.

Over at The Nation, journalist David M. Perry discusses his own experience as the father of a kid with Down's Syndrome, and how the system designed to help his child is largely built on putting him down (emphasis added):

Thanks to Part C of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, disabled children can access quite astounding levels of support if they qualify, and one of the benefits of our son's Down syndrome (as opposed to other disabilities) is that no one has ever questioned whether he qualified. So therapists come to our apartment in suburban Chicago and work with him on his gross and fine motor skills, speech, and overall development. We pay nothing. There's money in the program for medical expenses that our health care plan doesn't cover, and the state will even pay for durable medical equipment—braces for his ankles, a speech device that will say words when he presses an icon, the rental of a mini-treadmill to help him learn to walk. And all we have to do is to sit there, annually, while these kind therapists write out how far behind our son has fallen from "normal" developmental milestones. They've been praising him for so long, telling us what good parents we are and how great he's doing. But the team leader, a social worker, explains that the piece of paper has to be a record of delay and struggle; otherwise we'll receive less help. When they leave, my wife and I are quiet for a long time and don't really talk about it until late at night, when we cry.


The first social worker came over to assess our son, and we cheerfully talked about how great he was, then later were told we qualified for very little. Yet every other parent and teacher kept talking about "waivers" that we should qualify for—but a waiver from what? What service or requirement was getting waived? We struggled through form after form, lost in the bureaucratic hurdles that stood between us and help.

Eventually we found out that a social worker had used "mild" for my son's developmental disability on his first assessment, so we had to argue with the state that, in fact, his disabilities were not mild. Someone at a local nonprofit advised us to create a spreadsheet that detailed every minute of every day that we had to do something for him that we might not have to do for a typical kid. I tried for 15 minutes, characterizing difference as struggle, then deleted the spreadsheet. I didn't like the way it was making me look at my son. I went to a mandatory training from the county at a local library, where a well-intentioned employee advised us to describe our "child's worst day" in our application. We gritted our teeth. We argued for "severe" instead of "mild." We dehumanized our son in the paperwork but got support.

There's more, of course. More and more examples where Perry was essentially given a choice between insulting his child, or losing the support that his family depends on. Whatever language you want to use — there's got to be a better way than that.

See also: autism.

I Shouldn't Have to Dehumanize My Son to Get Him Support [David M. Perry / The Nation]

Image via Public Domain Photos