at the National Institutes of Health
By Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Adam R. Raimond, M. Theresa Balinghasay, and Jilana S. Boston
December 19, 2016
"We predicted and observed that persons are viewed more negatively when described as having special needs than when described as having a disability or having a certain disability, indicating that special needs is an ineffective euphemism."
Although euphemisms are intended to put a more positive spin on the words they replace, some euphemisms are ineffective. Our study examined the effectiveness of a popular euphemism for persons with disabilities, special needs.
Most style guides prescribe against using the euphemism special needs and recommend instead using the non-euphemized term disability; disability advocates argue adamantly against the euphemism special needs, which they find offensive. In contrast, many parents of children with disabilities prefer to use special needs rather than disability. But no empirical study has examined whether special needs is more or less positive than the term it replaces.
Therefore, we gathered a sample of adult participants from the general population (N = 530) and created a set of vignettes that allowed us to measure how positively children, college students, and middle-age adults are viewed when they are described as having special needs, having a disability, having a certain disability (e.g., is blind, has Down syndrome), or with no label at all.
We predicted and observed that persons are viewed more negatively when described as having special needs than when described as having a disability or having a certain disability, indicating that special needs is an ineffective euphemism.
Even for members of the general population who have a personal connection to disability (e.g., as parents of children with disabilities), the euphemism special needs is no more effective than the non-euphemized term disability. We also collected free associations to the terms special needs and disability and found that special needs is associated with more negativity; special needs conjures up more associations with developmental disabilities (such as intellectual disability) whereas disability is associated with a more inclusive set of disabilities; and special needs evokes more unanswered questions.
These findings recommend against using the euphemism special needs.
Special Needs as a Euphemism for Disability
Euphemisms for disability are popular—so popular that style guides prescribe against using euphemisms for persons who have disabilities. For example, the American Psychological Association (2010, p. 76) tells writers to “avoid euphemisms” for disability, such as “special, physically challenged, handi-capable” because those euphemisms “are condescending.”
Similarly, “bypass condescending euphemisms” is a primary recommendation of the Research and Training Center on Independent Living (2013), who note that “terms such as special, handi-capable, differently abled and challenged reinforce the idea that people cannot deal honestly with their disabilities.” The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association also prescribes against using euphemisms for disability because euphemisms cannot “hide disability, but they can produce confusion” (Folkins, 1992).
Over the past few decades, the term special needs has become a popular euphemism for disability (Berger, 2013). Rather than identifying a person as having a disability or having a certain disability (e.g., Anika is blind, Bruce has ADHD), the person is euphemized as having special needs. Figure 1 demonstrates the steeply rising popularity of the term special needs, based on Google’s NGram count in published books dating back to 1900. Currently, Google Scholar indexes over a million scholarly articles with the term special needs, and Amazon.com sells nearly 5000 books with the euphemism special needs in their title. Special needs is an increasingly popular euphemism.
|Fig. 1 Percentage (10−6) of published books (from 1900 to 2000) in|
which the term special needs appears, according to Google NGram.
The origin of special needs as a disability euphemism is unclear. Guralnick (1994) reports in the 1990s changing the wording of a 1980s questionnaire for parents from handicapped children to children with special needs, suggesting that the euphemism had taken hold by the end of the 20th century. Figure 2demonstrates the declining popularity of the term handicapped based on Google’s NGram.
Shapiro-Lacks (2013) proposes that the euphemism special needs morphed from the term Special Olympics, established in the late 1960s, and the concept of special education, also established in the 1960s. “At some point, people with disabilities began to be referred to as special, our needs as special needs, and our demographic as the special needs population,” writes Shapiro-Lacks (2013).
|Fig. 2 Percentage (10−5) of published books (from 1900 to 2000) in|
which the term handicapped appears, according to Google NGram.
However, special needs is not a legal term. In nearly a thousand pages of US law, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and 2014, the term special needsoccurs only a dozen or so times. And never once are children with disabilities or adults with disabilities referred to as children with special needs or adults with special needs. Rather, individuals with disabilities are always referred to in US law as individuals with disabilities.
Federal laws use the term special needs only to refer to the distinctive requirements of various groups. For example, the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act tasks a federal research center to “examine the special needs of limited English proficient children with disabilities.” The 1984 amendment to the Vocational Education Act tasks a state board to “assess the special needs of groups of individuals,” and those groups include “individuals who are single parents or homemakers and individuals who participate in programs designed to eliminate sex bias and stereotyping in vocational education.” The 1974 amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act tasks a state agency to assess the special needs of the Commissioner of Education (a federal position now called the Secretary of Education). Thus, federal laws do not use special needs as a euphemism for disability.
Most style guides also prescribe against using the euphemism special needs. For example, the National Center for Disability Journalism (2015, p. 23) warns that “the word special in relationship to those with disabilities is now widely considered offensive because it euphemistically stigmatizes” persons with disabilities. Therefore, the National Center for Disability Journalism (2015, p. 23) advises to “avoid using these terms [special and special needs]” and instead “cite the specific disability or disabilities in question.” Similarly, the Research and Training Center on Independent Living (2013) advises that “the use of special needs is offensive … Just say individuals with disabilities.”
Disability advocates argue adamantly against using the euphemism special needs. Kailes (2010) deems special needs “an offensive euphemism” that is “patronizing, inappropriate, and distancing.” Woodward (1991) and Linton (1998, p. 14) deem special needs a condescending euphemism, promoted by paternalistic “do-gooders.” Rucker (2014) deems special needs akin to other “socially unacceptable words” and “ethnic/social slurs no longer tolerated.” Indeed, in an international survey of English-speaking persons with disabilities conducted by the BBC, special ranks fourth in a list of terms considered offensive; specialwas barely beaten out by the slurs spastic and retard (Ouch!, 2003).
Several campaigns have lobbied to remove the euphemism special needs. Using social media, Lawrence Carter-Long (Carter-Long, 2016) advanced the Twitter hashtag #NotSpecial alongside the hashtags #SayTheWord and #Disabled and UK television star Josh Reeves (Reeves, 2015) launched the #Don’tCallMeSpecial campaign. In the Disability Studies literature, UK scholar Colin Barnes campaigned to replace special education with inclusive education, replace special educational needs with unmet educational needs, and replace the euphemism children with special education needs (SEN) with the non-euphemized term disabled children (Barnes & Sheldon, 2007).
However, parents of children with disabilities and professionals who work with children and adults with disabilities are not nearly so comfortable with the non-euphemized terms disabled and disability(Foundation for Jewish Summer Camps, 2015; Steinberg, 2013). As one mother relates, “I don’t like the term special needs, but … I don’t like the word disabled or disability any better” (I Am The Giraffe, 2010). Another mother relates, “Every single time I use that term [special needs], I flinch inside; it just sounds so…stiff. Still, it’s less harsh than the reality of disabled” (Love That Max: Special Needs Blog, 2008). One father relates, “I prefer the term special needs [because] I feel like it is a little bit less derogatory,” and another father relates, “special needs maybe sounds more positive, you know, than disability” (Sams, 2012, p. 147).
The goal of our study was to examine empirically whether the euphemism special needs is indeed more positive than the non-euphemized term disability among the general population, as well as among parents of children with disabilities, people who provide services to persons with disabilities, and other people with a personal connection to disability. We constructed a set of vignettes, which we manipulated to allow us to answer empirically the question of whether special needs is an effective euphemism for disability.
Read the entire paper HERE.