‘Special Needs,’ ‘Inclusion,’ ‘Disability’ Or None Of The Above? Why Labels Matter

‘Special Needs,’ ‘Inclusion,’ ‘Disability’ Or None Of The Above? Why Labels Matter

I've often thought about the question of the terms we use such as “Special Needs,” “Inclusion,” or “Disability,” and which words are best to open lines of communication? I do not have any hearing in my right ear. I also have a noticeable facial discoloration on parts of my right face that leads some people to think that I have had a stroke, and, over the years, I have used several orthotic devices and sometimes a cane for balance.

From childhood on, I have been called a wide range of descriptive names — many of them were insulting or worse. I have many unpleasant memories of these encounters: “Monster-Boot-Boy,” “Dog-Face,” “Half-Deaf-Kid,” “Limpy,” “Gimpy,” and quite a few others I would never repeat.

When I began as a rabbi for the deaf community, I began to think again about language. I wondered what words I would use within the college community of NTID — National Technical Institute for the Deaf. That was more than 35 years ago.

Over time, I have heard all of the “new, friendly, labels.” From the various common phrases like “differently abled,” or in my case, “hard of hearing.” I never got used to that phrase. It is not hard for me to hear. On one side I hear perfectly well. On the other side, hearing is impossible. It is what it is, but it has never been hard or easy.

In those days, I began something different and I continue to use the same format today. “What’s your name and if you use a descriptive adjective, what do you prefer?” I think it is condescending to choose a descriptive adjective without asking someone what their choice is. It is their life.

If I am writing or speaking to a diverse group and I cannot ask everyone at once what their preferences are, I will describe the issues at hand but never label any individual or group. I never assume to know another person’s choice of identity without asking them.

When you begin by asking what someone prefers and choose for their own identity, you send a message. “It matters to me what you think, and you have the right to your OWN identity.” Each individual is deserving of the self-identity they choose, and, no one has the right to label anyone.

When you choose your own identity, the name or word you choose is no longer a label, but rather a description of how you want to be perceived. In this way, everyone benefits. You are more than a label, and everyone starts on the same footing of respect and openness.

What’s in a Name? EVERYTHING.

Rabbi Daniel T. Grossman led Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, New Jersey for 25 years. He is a graduate of Temple University, Hebrew University, Merkaz HaRav Kook in Jerusalem and the Reconstructionist Rabbincal College. Rabbi Grossman also works in the field of Jewish Special Education and co-wrote and participated in the video “Someone is Listening,” the story of a young deaf Jew and his search for fulfillment as a Jewish adult. He is fluent in several sign languages.

Editor's Note: February is Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, an international effort to raise awareness (#JDAIM16 on twitter). "The New Normal" will share blogs posts all month long about the language we use when we talk about disability. Please comment here or on our Facebook page — share with your community and join the conversation!

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