March 7, 2013

by: Renee Canfield

The “Special Needs Kid”

In 1987 President Ronald Regan signed a Presidential Proclamation declaring the month of March National Developmental Disabilities Awareness. The proclamation urged all Americans to encourage and promote opportunities to help individuals with developmental disabilities lead productive lives achieving full potential. That was twenty-six years ago. Why do we need to continue to have National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month?

Just a few weeks ago I was having a conversation with my seven year old son. He was grouchy and complaining about a hard day at school. He finally revealed that he got pushed down at recess by “a special needs kid.” I tried to explain that while it was sad that he got pushed, he really should call the girl by her name, and not refer to her as, “special needs kid.” He very innocently said, “why not, that is what the teacher called her.”

I had a restless night. Should I call the school? Was I over reacting? In the end, I contacted the school, not because my son got pushed, but because adults who were role models to him where teaching him by their actions that another student was less than; not Sara or Amy, but “that special needs kid.”

We need National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month because everywhere, even in my small suburb, as a community we still look at an individual and see their disability first—when we should be seeing their smile, hearing their laugh and acknowledging their skills and potential. We should be seeing every individual as a person, just like you and me. The words we use, and teach our children to use, are just as important as our actions toward others.

So this weekend I am having a conversation with my seven and my eight year old. For little kids, it is best to keep it simple:

1. Use Person First Language

Good examples:
• The best name to call someone is the name their Mom gave them! “Sara, who has cerebral palsy.”
• A person with a disability

 Bad example:  Special Needs Kid

2. Avoid the term “Handicapped”—a handicap is a disadvantage in a situation, NOT a person.

3. Avoid the language of pity—having a disability does not make a person less than or deserving of pity. Use language such as, “Sara, who is a wheelchair user” instead of, “Sara, who is wheelchair bound.”

4. Always talk to the person, rather than their parent, teacher or interpreter. Look an individual in the eye when you are talking to them and speak in a normal tone of voice.

5. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume that an individual is or is not capable of doing something or assume that an individual with a disability is not just as smart as you are!

This year’s message for Ohio’s National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month campaign is “Look Beyond.”  When we Look Beyond the disability, we find an amazing individual–full of potential, talent, skills and friendship.  The biggest message I will have for my kids this weekend–treat everyone with the courtesy and respect that they deserve, for you never know who you will find when you Look Beyond the surface and see the person underneath!

Tammy Willet
UCP Employee
*  These five tips were taken from a presentation on disability etiquette created by Nevada State College on YouTube at:

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