by Lynne Feldman
You might have a child who requires some type of special approach to learning. In the “old days”, and by that I mean in the 1990s, we disparaged many of them with the term “sped”, or ‘retarded.” Having a child necessitating specialized educational approaches was often never mentioned, or whispered to relatives as was once done with cancer sufferers.
Now that we approach 2020, where has our languaging gone in this respect, and how best to refer to us, our child, or another individual’s special requirement for learning/living? I learned this the hard way at my grandson’s wellness checkup as he turned 8. I glibly informed him that Adam had “an eating disorder.” The doctor spun around, and said, “Be careful! Do you mean at 8 years old he’s anorexic, or do you mean he has eating ‘issues’? The first is a serious medical condition; the second means he’s a picky eater, and not to be confused with the first.”
Thus chastened, I began to wonder what, when, why, where, how, and to whom we should be revealing or reporting our charges’ specialized educational approaches. Do we introduce an autistic child as “My autistic son, Timmy” or “Timmy, who is autistic”?
The answer? What is the context in which you are thinking of identifying your child in this manner? Certainly you can report your suspicions to their medical caregivers and therapists. Do you tell Janie before going over to play with Dorie that Dorie is autistic? Ask yourself why you might feel compelled to add this information with Dorie and not when playing with Cammie, who might play too rough? You might advise Janie about anything Dorie doesn’t enjoy playing, but wouldn’t you want to do this with any playdate?
How do you refer to a person who has a disability? Let’s figure out what “disability” means first. The opposite of “disability” is not “ability” as one might think. Nor are these individuals with letters or diagnoses “differently abled” which implies that they are not part of our society, but rather are some odd subgroup. That term still gives off the impression that there are things they cannot do.
Am I disabled by steep stairs without handrails? No, I just have to walk more carefully. Am I disabled by my near-sightedness? After putting on my glasses each day, am I once again “abled”? Am I now “differently abled”? I have a visual “impairment” yet by no means am I disabled. Is the child with cerebral palsy disabled? Only if the environment and assistive devices like my glasses prevent them from being included in our society. Leveling the playing field by IDEA, the federal law that provides for “special education,” implies that any learner can be included in our society as long as educational and physical barriers are removed.
So before automatically introducing a playmate/friend/student with a diagnostic label, rethink what information is honestly necessary in that situation. We do not yet have language which does not stereotype or denigrate individuals. Even common terms such as “special education,” “learning differences,” or “exceptional students” do not sit well with our deepening understanding of what we want to say and how we truly want to say it.