Special Needs Or Disabilities? What’s The Difference?
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Special Needs Or Disabilities? What’s The Difference?

Lisa Friedman is a widely recognized expert in Jewish disability inclusion. She is an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey, where she has developed and oversees an inclusive synagogue school. She is also the Project Manager of UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project. Lisa consults with congregations, schools, camps and other organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy and families through dialogue, interactive workshops, and awareness training. Lisa is a sought after speaker on a wide variety of topics and blogs about disabilities and inclusion at "Removing the Stumbling Block."

Nearly sixteen years ago my synagogue hired me as our Religious School’s Special Needs Consultant. Within a year that title changed to Special Needs Coordinator. A subtle shift, but one that we believe demonstrated our commitment to the permanence of our program. Today I serve as a full-time Education Director with oversight of our inclusion efforts. But if anyone asks me what I do for a living, my reply is typically that I am a Jewish Educator and a Jewish Inclusion Expert.

Why so much focus on the semantics? Isn’t it just a job title after all? Isn’t the work I do far more important than the label attached to it?

My congregation’s Outreach Committee hosted a breakfast to explore starting a support group for parents and grandparents of children with special needs. When I helped to edit the invitation, I chose to write “parents and grandparents of children with disabilities,” thinking that it would make our message clear and might help us to draw participation from the larger community. However, a member of the planning committee, a mother whose son is on the autism spectrum, immediately wrote and asked me to change it to “special needs” because “it seems less harsh than the term disability; disability just has a more negative connotation.”

Is that true? Does disability really conjure up negative images?

Have we made no genuine advances as a society? Do we really hear disabled and think broken? Maybe that is why we have to celebrate when a young girl with Spina Bifida is on the cover of Parents Magazine:

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Or when a boy with Cerebral Palsy and his brother are Sports Illustrated Kids Stars of the Year?

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And by the way… I, too, think these are causes for celebration. I’m just pointing out that I feel sad that these aren’t just “normal” occurrences in our society yet.

Is “special needs” just that much gentler than “disability”? And is gentler better?

Honestly, I don’t know the answers. But I do know that the children I am honored to work with are absolutely special. Maybe that’s enough.

Lisa Friedman is widely recognized in the field of Jewish Special Education. She is currently an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey, where she has developed and oversees an inclusive synagogue school. She is also the Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks for Matan. Lisa consults with Jewish organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training. Lisa is a sought after speaker on a wide variety of topics for professionals, lay leaders, teachers, parents and teens and blogs about disabilities and inclusion at Removing the Stumbling Block. You can follow Lisa on Twitter @JewishSpecialEd.

Editor's Note: This blog originally appeared on Removing The Stumbling Block and was republished with permission.

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