Welcome to Illinois

The s-word

Posted in Language, Learning disability by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on April 3, 2009

I was too busy to comment here about Barack Obama’s description of his bowling as “like the special olympics”. Needless to say it was a real gaffe for anyone in a position of authority, let alone a President, but given how liberally phrases such as this are thrown around I think the Special Olympics had the right response in seeing it as an opportunity to educate.

I was reminded of the issue while reading Michael Bérubé’s post this morning about discussing the issue with some students at LSU, one of whom “said that she’d been hearing not merely that this should be a “teaching moment” with regard to cognitive disability but also that we should take the opportunity to revisit the term “Special” itself, in order to ask whether the word hasn’t become the kind of default euphemism that needs to be retired along with the R-word.”

I’ve previously mentioned my distaste for “special” as a euphemism and while I would agree with Michael that I don’t expect the Special Olympics movement to respond favourably to that suggestion, I would also agree with the student’s suggestion “that Special Olympians themselves take the lead in determining the appropriate language for cognitive disability.”

Of course that’s easier said than done but I do think there should be more direction given as to how words should be used correctly, rather than just advocating outright banning. It is perfectly possible, although perhaps not advisable, to use the word ‘retarded’ to legitimately describe a delay in cognitive ability.

It is also sometimes legitimate to describe people with cognitive disabilities as ‘special’ but to apply it as a blanket term to describe all people with cognitive disabilities is condescending an just as dehumanizing as describing them as ‘retarded’ in my opinion.


4 Responses

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  1. starrlife said, on April 4, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    I let my daughter know she is special because she is to me, also she is unique in many ways and many of them good ways! I refuse to allow the word special to be anything but what it truly means. I believe we are all special…

  2. welcometoillinois said, on April 6, 2009 at 8:56 am

    To me that’s different. My kids are both special to me and all her Grandchildren are special to my Mum (we had a brief conversation about this) but calling all children with disabilities “special” is, to me, euphemistic and condescending

  3. starrlife said, on April 6, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Ahh, I see what you mean… I went over to Michael Berube’s post, very thought provoking, and made a few comments there. I guess I feel like it depends where it comes from, kind of like the dilemma of African American vs Black, if people with DS want to claim a place as opposed to letting others put them there? Like I said at Michael’s- it’s more of an ongoing conversation than an answer. Like- on a continuum aren’t all children special … and it should go in both directions. I often reply that way if people say it to me- “I’m sure your children are special too”!

  4. rickismom said, on May 12, 2009 at 6:57 am

    Do you REALLY hink that we will ever get rid of all the euphamisms?!? If you get rid of “special”, something else will pop up quicker than popcorn!
    I think that our emphasis has to be on the contributions of people with special needs, on their individuality…..

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