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Advocacy 101

How We Talk at Family to Family: Words are Powerful

Why We Don't Say "Special"

There are many children with other needs, like poverty, hunger or homelessness.  While we sometimes help families find those basic needs, Family to Family Network's primary mission is to help families navigate the world of disability:

  • For education - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  • For social services - Dept. of Aging & Disability Services (DADS)
  • For post secondary - Office of Disability Services at university/college
  • For employment - Dept. of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy

The only place you will see us use the term "special needs" is in referring to a type of trust you set up for a child with a disability.

Why are you using the word "special needs" when you refer to your child? What does that imply? How does it make people feel when you use it? If it is pity - we don't want that for your children or any other person with disability. Let's change how we speak about people.

Read More here:

"When Special Isn't So Special"
by Leslie P., Texas Project FIRST

People First Language

A handicap has been defined as an obstacle which society imposes on a person with a disability; i.e. inaccessible transportation or buildings, no signage, etc… Handicapped is not a term that should be used to describe human beings. A disability has been defined as a body function that operates differently. It’s that simple! It’s just a body function that works differently. People First Language seeks to put the person first and the disability second! People with disabilities are people, first and foremost!

The disability rights movement started in the 1970s. In 1976, PL 94-142 was enacted to include children with disabilities in the public education system for the first time. People First Language began to evolve…

• In 1990, the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped became the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy.
• On July 26, 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act, PL 103-336, was enacted, prohibiting discrimination based on disability in employment, public service, public accommodations and telecommunications for the more than 43 million adults and children with disabilities in the U.S. (Notice it was not called the Handicapped Americans Act!) - This was reauthorized again in 2007.
• In late 1990, PL 94-142, The Education of All Handicapped Children Act, was reauthorized and renamed by Congress to become PL 103-476, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and then reauthorized again in 2004, The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement ACT (IDEA).

Isn’t it all great?!

But we still have a long way to go! Government cannot legislate morality, values, or feelings. Persons with disabilities must be perceived as valuable, participating members of our society because they are! Since our language reflects our values, our language must change. Remember the Civil Rights Movement? The Civil Rights Act was passed long ago, in 1964. But it took years before the law really seemed to have an effect.  During that time, a long used and degrading term finally became Negro, then Black and now African American. Ditto the Women’s Movement…”honey” and “girl” gave way to “Ms.” No legislation was ever passed for this movement, but our society has, nevertheless, changed a great deal in this area.

Now it’s our turn...time to change the language used to describe children and adults with disabilities.

NO MORE LABELS! Labels degrade. Labels evoke negative pictures in our heads. Labels don’t address individuality – they lump people together and focus on the disability, not the person and his/her abilities. Society will not change unless we insist on the change. We have the right to do so.

No more “H Word!”

Miriam Websters dictionary defines "Handicap" as a disadvantage that makes achievement unusually difficult. We know that people with disabiltiies are only at a disadvantage when buildings are not accessible; or when access to general ed. curriculum and expectations are low, limits are created for people with disabilities. Let's not use the "H" word to describe people with disabilities!

Persons with disabilities want the same things all of us want. We all want: dignity, respect and the opportunity to participate fully in what life has to offer. Those achievements are hard to attain when one’s whole being is defined by a label: handicapped, disabled, mentally retarded, crippled, autistic,blind, deaf, etc… Traditionally, our society has not expected much from a person with a label. This is changing now, for people with disabilities are more like people without disabilities than they are different! A disability is only one unique aspect of the sum total of a unique individual!


No more labels! Instead, People First Language!
What is it? It focuses on the person first, the disability last.
How do you know what it is? It describes what the person HAS, not WHAT he/she IS. It’s easy...just use your imagination.
No one “suffers from,” or “is afflicted with” or is a “victim of” anything! Nor is anyone “wheelchair-bound.” There are people who USE wheelchairs...nothing else! People are not “bound” by their wheelchairs. Their wheelchairs allow them the freedom to go where they want to go!

As society’s language changes, as we talk about PEOPLE FIRST:

• Perceptions will change,
• Attitudes will change
• Society’s acceptance and respect for people with disabilities will increase, and
• An inclusive society will become a reality.

History tells us it takes at least one generation between the time an idea is born and the time it is actually incorporated into our society. Perhaps we’ll change that truism. We have no time to waste. Wouldn’t it be great if when children who are 8-years-old today become adults, labels will be as extinct as dinosaurs!

People First Language is right, and the time for it is now.

Just do it!

People First Language to use…

  • People with disabilities
  • People with intellectual disabilities or he has a cognitive disability
  • My son has autism
  • She has Down Syndrome
  • She has a Congenital disability
  • He is a person with a seizure disorder
  • He uses a wheelchair
  • She has a developmental disability
  • He has an orthopedic disability
  • She has short stature
  • He has no speech
  • She has a learning disability
  • He is a person who has….
  • She has an emotional disturbance
  • Typical instead of “normal”
  • He has quadriplegia, paraplegia, etc….
  • She receives Special Ed Services
  • Accessible parking


For More Information on People First Language:

Disability Is Natural by Kathie Snow - The #1 Source for People First Language and new ways of thinking about disability. (see especially - The Case Against Special Needs)

Describing People With Disabilities - Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (in espanol)

Person First Respectful Language brochure (pdf) - Dept. of Aging and Disability Services

People First - What is PF, History, Philosophy


Why does F2F talk about inclusion so much?

please see:

Inclusion Fairy Flitter-Flutter
Welcome to Holland? What the Hell. Let's Go to Italy ANYWAY! (pdf)
by Debby H.


"Why Inclusion Begins In Kindergarten" / "Por Qué La inclusión comienza en el kinder"
by Charlene Comstock-Galagan
on our Texas Project FIRST site


Self Advocacy and Self Determination

I Am Tyler - A young man with a disability tells about how people assisted him throughout school....and the importance of "Ability Awareness". (video)

A Credo for Support - A series of suggestions for people who care about and support someone with a disability. (youtube video)