AA-1: Special Needs and Disability Language Matters

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A continuing challenge for the BSA National Special Needs and Disabilities Committee (NSNDC) is the many times we are approached by an advocate who thinks we are not using the best words to describe their disability/condition/interest group/community and wants us to change our messaging. This appendix is intended to help those advocates understand why we phrase things the way we do.

The goals for our committee can be summarized as:

  • promoting inclusion in the traditional Scouting program of youth with different abilities and adults with disabilities who may participate in the youth program (RBAE)
  • equipping  Scouting volunteers and professionals to make sensible accommodations for differences in abilities as they execute their individual parts of the Scouting program
  • promoting inclusion of adults with different abilities into our corps of volunteers and professionals, and
  • advocating within the BSA organization to ensure people with different abilities are reflected in our literature and that their needs are taken into account when developing policies for implementing Scouting.

We do this by gathering information on best practices for adapting elements of the Scouting program and best practices for working with youth with various classes of ability differences.  Then we turn around and distill that information into newsletters, resource documents, and training materials to distribute throughout the BSA family.  It is important that we communicate in plain language so our volunteers don’t have to be subject matter experts to do good things for their Scouts.  At the same time, as best we can, we want to promote the use of language that is respectful and inoffensive.

We have learned that there is vast amount of diversity within the special needs and disabilities community. That makes it hard for us to find wording that laypeople understand and is also universally acceptable to the entire community of special needs and disabilities. Candidly, we do our best, but we haven’t found a way to please everyone. As you read further, you will likely find that we used a word or phrase in a way that you would not.  Just know we mean well and we are trying.  Here are some of the challenges we face:

Language changes over time.  At the 1977 National Jamboree, an event was offered called the “Handicapped Awareness Trail”.  At the time, the word handicapped was broadly acceptable and was commonly used to reference our community and to promote what we now call inclusion.  As time passed, the next generation of advocates pushed for the use of what we now call “person first” language, and using the term “with disabilities” instead of handicapped.  In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and that usage was the commonly accepted language by then.  As time passed into the 21st century, there was a growing recognition that there were a variety of “invisible disabilities” that were not included in the ADA definition of disability but did require supports and accommodations.  Rather than label them disabilities, which had a legal meaning by then, the next generation of advocates pressed for calling them special needs.  Recently, the term special needs started putting off some of the latest generation of advocates and some people that still identify with “disability” in the way it was used in the ADA.  For no obvious reason, every time someone invents a new way of speaking to be respectful and inclusive, it becomes trite and offensive after it has been used for a while.  We are still figuring out what comes next in terms of the best widely-accepted usage. For the purposes of our communications, the NSNDC shoots for language that is widely understood, even if it is not at the leading edge of what is used within the special needs/disabilities communities.

Language is used differently by different professional groups. For every type of special need/disability, there are several types of support people for that need.  These usually include a medical/therapeutic component, an educational component, a social services component, an advocacy component, a family component, and then the general public.  Aside from the general public, each one of these support components develops its own jargon, acronyms, slang, and preferred forms of address.  The words the specialists use are wonderful because they have precise and rich meanings and they allow for quick communication within the group.  But those same words are not well known to the other professional groups, much less the general public. For the purposes of our communications the NSNDC translates technical words into everyday language that our volunteers (i.e. general public) understand and can act on.

Language is used differently in different parts of the country.  It isn’t surprising that when you have so many distinct communities with all of the different types of needs and all the different support professions involved, that sometimes new words and new ways of using words will crop up in one part of the country, but not others.  Those that understand the regional vocabulary tend to assume that everyone uses words the same way while everyone else wonders what the new words mean and if they are worth adopting. For the purposes of our communications, the NSNDC uses the most widely understood version of terms so we can use the same messaging nationwide. When new jargon becomes broadly understood, we will start to use it ourselves.

Language tells how we see ourselves.  In recent years, we are seeing a tension emerging between the person-first language that has been the accepted mode of writing for many years and identity-first language.  The difference between the two is that person-first people have a self-image where their condition does not define who they are.  They have “it” but want to be defined by their other characteristics instead.  Identity-first people see their condition as an essential attribute of who they are (their self-image) like they might think of their gender, race, height, religious/cultural identification, etc.  While the NSNDC supports the right of each individual in the Scouting family to be referred to in the way he or she wants, we need ways to talk about people as a group and ways to identify specific needs or conditions. For the purposes of our communications the NSNDC continues to use person-first language in most situations when discussing groups, while recognizing and occasionally making exceptions for subgroups where identity-first language appears to be the dominant preference of members of that group.