Special needs, exceptionalities, and more: Just say no to disability euphemisms

Euphemisms, or a more palatable word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing (Kirwan Institute, 2015), are pervasive in disability discourse. Since the words we use matter, I’m going to attempt to provide a framework for being anti-ableist in our language with resources and citations for you to learn more.

Special Needs

We all have needs, right? What makes some of those needs special and who decides if they’re special or not? As with all identity and language, people get to self identify. Do disabled people use the term “special needs”? Here is a piece explaining why “special needs” is not it. It’s a very common term used by people who do not identify as having a disability so a good rule is to read work written by disabled people! CoorDown, Italy’s national organization for people with Down syndrome, launched a #notspecialneeds campaign to get the word out that the needs of people with disabilities are not special, they are human needs. Parents, particularly those with limited or no prior experience with disability, often use the term “special needs” for their own children. It makes sense, right? The needs of their child feel special since they may be different than other children. Here’s a parent perspective on why shifting away from “special needs” is important.


This popular term is even in the name of the lead education and advocacy organization for students with disabilities, The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). CEC’s research journal is titled Exceptional Children and the practitioner journal is Teaching Exceptional Children. If the professional organization uses the word exceptional and exceptionalities in everything, why shouldn’t we? First, check out disabled people on social media, blog posts, books, TED Talks. Do any of them identify as “exceptional” or view their needs as exceptionalities? That is the first sign of a euphemism. Next, let’s interrogate that word. What does “exceptionality” mean? It’s used in education to mean both “being physically or especially mentally disabled to an extent that special schooling is required” and to mean intellectually gifted (e.g. twice exceptional). Outside of education, exceptional means rare, unique, extraordinary. So, when we use this word, what are we really communicating? If approximately 14% of students receive services and supports under IDEA and about 6% are identified as gifted, is that really rare? Disability is a natural part of the human condition – what’s exceptional about it?

Special Education

Special education is services and supports provided for qualifying students to access the general education curriculum under federal law. It’s not a separate education system, it’s not a separate curriculum, it’s not a room or a place. Students are not in special education or in general education. The vast majority of students receiving services and supports under IDEA are in general education classrooms, accessing the curriculum and assessments with supports. When we say “special education” students or “they’re in special ed” or (even worse) “sped kids,” we’re communicating otherness, separate, special. What is special about special education are the procedural safeguards provided under the law. Students receive the accommodations (speech therapy, individualized reading instruction, calculators, visual schedules, guided notes, etc) they need and the modifications to curriculum and/or environment so that they can be successful. (Additionally, students are not ON IEPs – they have them to document their learning and access needs and provide accountability for districts to provide the agreed upon accommodations/modifications).


I came across this term recently in an academic article. It prompted me to do some digging. The intention here is to frame disability as a social construct but, this article helped me in considering how dis/ability is centering “ability.” One common theme in a lot of the euphemisms we hear (i.e. differently abled, handicapable) is the implication that people with disabilities do not have abilities. Disability is not the opposite of ability. The framing of ability and disability in this way perpetuates ableism by indicating some kind of partial ability or separateness between a person’s abilities and their disability.

High Functioning/Low Functioning

These terms are often used to describe where on the autism spectrum a person is. This is flawed for many reasons. This piece sheds some insight into functioning labels from the perspective of an autistic person. The key point is that these labels refer to the way others are affected by a person’s autism rather than how an autistic person experiences autism. Essentially, these are labels neurotypical people use to describe an autistic person’s proximity to neurotypicality. Here’s another read from the parent perspective about how these labels are inappropriate and misleading.

The same can be applied to “mild to moderate” and “moderate to intensive” disabilities. While these labels were maybe intended to describe the level of support a disabled person needs in school or life skills, it is ultimately communicating the ways in which others are impacted by a person’s disability and needs. Who says if someone’s disability affects them mildly or severely? Rather, we should use language referring to the prevalence of the disability. High incidence disabilities are those that occur most often such as learning disabilities, emotional/behavioral disorders, speech language disorders, and other health impairments such as ADHD. Low incidence disabilities are those that occur less frequently such as deaf blindness.

What Should I Say?

I’m so glad you asked! Say “disability” if that’s what you mean. Say “receiving services” or “they have extra time on tests” if that’s what you mean. Ableism, the belief that disabled people are inferior, is detrimental to students in our schools. Our language communicates our beliefs and our implicit biases. We are going to tackle our ableism by making sure our language is strengths based and intentional.

Many of us were taught person-first language. In some cases, that’s completely appropriate! Some people prefer identity-first language, though. There is no one way or right way, there is always variability within communities! Listen. Listen to how people self identify, how they introduce themselves. Aim to use strengths based, identity affirming language. Inclusion begins with our language.

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