This morning I was going through my routine of reading the newspaper and checking the internet when I came across an article on Reddit! from NPR’s senior education editor Steve Drummond on How the Language of Special Education is Evolving. One of the things I found most was his reference to a web-based style guide for journalists from the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ), based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, for “journalists, communication professionals, and members of the general public who are seeking appropriate and accurate language to use when writing or talking about people living with disabilities.” . The overall recommendation in this guide is a principle we should all live by: “Always use people first language”. In other words, don’t call someone a “disabled student”, but instead a “student with a disability”.
The other day I heard a teacher referring to her students with disabilities as “Speds”: “My Speds can’t handle that.” Her heart was in the right place, as she was engaging in a dialog with me about how ineffective and frustrated she felt as a new teacher. What she didn’t realize is that this way of speaking diminishes students, even if it is unintentional. People-first language not only changes what we say, but also changes attitudes. A student with a disability is a person and a student first, not disabled first. On the website Disability Is Natural you can find a host of articles and suggested phrase changes. Using tools like the NCDJ style guide and the list on Disability is Natural will help us to change our language and our attitudes and always stay in the mindset of growth.
Even when using people- first language, however, we need to be aware of how our language use sometimes implies that all students with disabilities are all the same and ignores the individuality of each student. Saying “My students with disabilities can’t handle that” hurts as much as saying “My Speds can’t handle that”. Students with disabilities are a diverse group, and the “I” is in IEP for a reason; we need individualized plans to help students accomplish their goals and to ensure each student with a disability is successful.
As an aside, I usually start my mornings by reading the New York Times, checking out the NPR website, and listening to NPR on my way in to work. I am also a fan of the website Reddit! and like to read content on the teachers and special education sub-reddits. Reddit! is a forum-like website where users post links or images and other users vote up or down. A sub-reddit is a sub forum, a place where people of similar interests gather.