Labels Matter

I was listening to Minority Korner this week and one segment of the show was about the term BIPOC. As is usual on the show they went through the history of terms that have been used by Black Americans to describe themselves in the last few hundred years. James, the host, really got my attention when he said (and I am heavily paraphrasing here- please listen to the show for exact quotes) that he thinks that the terms have changed so much because every generation has had to listen to their oppressors call them by whatever name they are using and they think “No, I don’t want that.” As though by finding the right name that people of colour might finally be safe and welcome in all areas of our society.

It made me think of the ever evolving language surrounding what is most commonly described as “Special needs” people. There are so many schools of thought around that term, and most of them want to see it in the trash can.

I think one of the biggest issues with the term is it is used to cover basically every one who might struggle in the world. Disability is another word that causes battles by the way. Some people gladly identify as as disabled, others hate it and would be offended if you referred to them as disabled. Again, the umbrella is the problem.

Special needs is a short hand that could describe everyone from a motor delayed child to a high support nonverbal adult with a million variations in between. It is meant to loop together people who actually share very few of the same experiences except for a general trouble navigating the world, and even that can vary widely. Using the term special needs can have the effect of erasing the person’s lived experience. For that reason, it has become offensive.

Other people, mostly parents, doctors, and therapy providers insist that the term is useful. Parents especially have found the term helpful in finding support groups. I myself googled “Special needs parental support” when beginning my journey with Ryan. I used it in my post yesterday because not everyone who shared a car with Ryan was autistic, but they did need support.

I don’t want to offend anyone. It is always my intention to be as careful with my words as possible. I won’t always get it right. I think the best thing I can do is take my cues from the people who are effected most by my choices. Language is ever evolving and it is beautiful. It can also be a tool of oppression. So, as I move through my life I am going to continue to strive to evolve my language and most of all, when Ryan is ready to tell me the words he wants to use to describe himself- those are the words I will use.

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