Special Needs…Disabilities…What’s The difference?

Special Needs…Disabilities…What’s The difference?

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. She loves writing/editing for “The New Normal” and for WHYY’s newsworks. Her latest book The Little Gate Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall and was chosen for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Book Selections. She’s recently shared an ELI Talk on Standing With Families Raising Kids With Disabilities and has released a journal designed for special needs parents.

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 we attach to it?

Editor's Note: This blog originally appeared on Removing The Stumbling Block.

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 who’s 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:


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

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.

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