The Jewish Week is always here for you.
We need your support now.
Your contribution will help us bring you vital news
and frequent updates about the impact of COVID-19.
Why Do People On The Same Team Argue Over Semantics?

Why Do People On The Same Team Argue Over Semantics?

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."

I like words. I always have. I take pride in the use of proper grammar. And I know that words matter. I have experienced them used as both tools and weapons.

So I find myself wondering why I rarely see anything that stirs debate more readily than semantics in disability discourse.

I can completely understand why people take issue with ignorance and blatant discrimination. When words are used in a derogatory way, when their intent is to belittle, denigrate or express malice … I get it and obviously take issue with it, too.

But I find myself puzzled when people who are supposed to be on the “same team” argue over semantics. If our goal is to increase awareness and foster inclusion, don’t we weaken the cause when those who work with, advocate for, love and are themselves individuals with disabilities can’t seem to agree? And what’s more frustrating is that we ostensibly agree on the value of inclusion. So why don’t we agree on which words will help advance that cause? Are we somehow undermining ourselves?

There are so many phrases: special needs vs. disabilities; disabled, non-disabled, differently-abled. Inclusion and reverse inclusion. Are some of these terms “better” than others? Should some be used in certain settings but not in others? Doesn’t there seem to be a need for a standardization of language so we can get on with the business of inclusion?

I have to admit, I’m a little anxious to have everybody weigh in. As I’ve said, I know this issue makes people feel defensive. However, I am also really intrigued by the potential for a dialogue that is both constructive and productive. So, shall we start the conversation?

I’ve written before about word choice, specifically the use of the word disability vs. the term special needs. Read more here:

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. She oversees an extensive special needs program within the religious school, with programs designed to help students learn about their Jewish heritage, feel connected to their Jewish community and successfully learn Hebrew. Additionally, Lisa facilitates conversations about inclusion throughout the synagogue as whole and helps the congregation to shape its best practices. Lisa writes a blog about her experiences in Jewish special education:

read more: