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Reflecting on our Language: Is it time we stopped using the term ‘Special Needs’?

2020 provided us with numerous opportunities for reflection, both at an individual level, and as a society. Personally, I found myself learning about things I had not expected to be focussing on. These were deep reflections on diversity and inclusion, which challenged me and left me feeling uncomfortable. The learning has taught me this discomfort is part of the process, and so I sit with it. It has also made me notice the power of the language we use every day.


In recent weeks I have been drawn to stop and think about the language that I have been using in my professional capacity, working with children with additional needs, for many years. I have been aware for some time that some people aren’t very keen on the term ‘Special Needs’.  This is one of the reasons I tend to use the term ‘Additional Needs’ when talking about my advisory role.  About a month ago, I read a blogpost which made me reflect a lot on the various terms that have been used over my 17 years in teaching.  This paragraph was particularly powerful:


My son’s needs are not special. He needs to communicate and to eat, go to school, get a job, have friends and leisure activities. Are those needs any different from you or me? No, they’re not. How he will access them is different. But the needs themselves are not “special.” Disabled people need to get access to community transit, theatres, restaurants, swimming pools, shopping malls, and everything else that you and I access without even thinking about it. That doesn’t make their needs special and when we set the tone that they are special needs, it minimizes their rights. Disabled people have the right to do everything we do. And yes, by law this is their right. It’s not something special we do for them.






I'm ashamed to say I had never previously thought about it in that way.  I worked in a ‘Special’ school for 11 years, prior to that I worked in mainstream primary schools, but always with a keen interest in ‘Special Needs’.  If, as this parent says, her son’s needs aren’t ‘special’ then is it any better to label them ‘additional’?  My conclusion was - not really.


The day after I read this quote, I delivered some bespoke training to a school who’d asked for support for a child in their nursery.  I realised as I delivered the remote session that I regularly refer to ‘complex needs’, ‘significant needs’ or ‘profound needs’. It made me reflect even more.


I decided that it would be a good idea to put the question out to some of the connections from my Twitter network.  I wanted to know if many other people were having similar thoughts, and if so, what we should do about it:


I've been considering the language we use around disabilities and I don't think it is always right. It would be great to hear your thoughts, particularly around the use of the term 'Special Needs' before I write an article.


Some of the responses suggested that I wasn’t alone:


I agree. I used to work in a “special school” and I never liked the term. I also don’t like when we talk about “disabled people” ... their disability is not their definition. I try to use “people who have...”


Personally, I think there needs to be a completely new way of thinking about this. How children and adults with disabilities access things such as education is more important than addressing them as ‘special’, no matter how well intended. There needs to be a mind shift.


I’ve always preferred the term additional needs but maybe more accurately it should be additional access needs? Would that then move the language to be a more social model based one?


Joanna Grace who founded The Sensory Projects had some interesting thoughts:


I looked at the history of where these words come from in my book Multiple Multisensory Rooms 

It's interesting to see how they reflect the age. Changing them changes nothing unless the understanding they are reflecting is changed too.


She then provided the following graphic which was very thought provoking:




She clarified further:


When it is just "don't say that, say this instead" it can do more harm than good. If there is a good explanation as to why you want the change, then it can change the understanding. But ultimately unless the understanding changes there is no point.


At the beginning of December I was lucky enough to join Leslie Patterson on a Foundation Stage Forum Podcast about the labels we use with children. In a recent article on the same theme, Leslie wrote the following:


I think we need to ask ourselves constantly whether the language we are using is still suitable.  In the early years many of us have used the term ‘emerging’ rather than ‘below expected’ because it feels kinder and indicates that progress is being made. However, after a while any phrase begins to carry with it connotations, and we need to re-evaluate the words we use on a regular basis.


I also think it is healthy to have discussions around our language on a regular basis.  I hope that this piece will prompt conversations, and I would love to hear the thoughts of those who have read it.  Posing the question on Twitter and then receiving the responses made me pause.  I deliberately hesitated a few weeks before writing this, as I wanted to think more about what had been said.  I continue to reflect.  If I’m no longer a ‘Special Needs Advisor’, and I’m also not sure about ‘Additional Needs Advisor’ then what do I call myself?  I thought more about my role and realised that what I do is advise teachers and support staff on how they can adapt their provision to ensure that their children have the best possible chance of learning.  I have toyed with something like ‘Adaptive Education Advisor’, but would anyone really know and more importantly understand what I did?  I’m lucky enough to provide free support to nurseries and schools, many of whom find me on social media – what are these settings likely to be looking for? ‘Adaptive Education support?’ Or more realistically ‘SEND support’?


I am going to continue to use the language that is familiar, but I also want to continue to reflect and consider how this language might make people feel, particularly the young people I am working with and their families.  Wider discussions around this topic can only help us to ensure that our language is appropriate. As Joanna says in her last image: ‘No-one should feel sad about their labels’.



Stephen Kilgour
Stephen Kilgour worked at Cherry Garden School, an outstanding specialist school in London, for 11 years, 7 of those as Deputy Head Teacher and Early Years Lead. He is now a SEND Advisor and Outreach Teacher at Tapestry. He lives in Newcastle with his wife and two young children.

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Thank you Stephen, for sharing your thoughts about the language we use about children with special needs. It has made me think about the way in which labels and terms gain different meanings over time, they are sticky, they get overused, they begin to mean too much of the wrong thing. It has also made me think about how as a society we are so keen to categorise, especially by our differences to each other. 

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The process of labelling is linked very strongly, I believe, to assessment and giving judgements and levels to children's learning and 'performance'. The incredibly hard process of gaining an EHCP, or even extra help/resources, to give a child access to what they really need, means that we are tied into this constant assessment and labelling cycle. As the move in mainstream is away from assessment levels and tracking, we now need to move away from labels and write, in a narrative fashion, about each individual child. Exactly what their strengths and needs are, without putting a label to them. I can dream!

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I wrote about this when I was doing my foundation degree in early years many moons ago!  It was seen as a problem right back then, and nothing seems to be resolved yet!  All children come with their own set of ‘special needs’ individual to that child, it’s when they become more complex and specific to an individual that we have to go down the route of labelling to access help and funding for extra support.  Whilst that system is in place, a label is, unfortunately necessary.  If it was possible to access support without a label, that would help!   I can remember having a child that her parents and I were sure was autistic, it was obvious that we would need support to help her, but she had to have that official label in order for us to get help.  
On my course we also pondered the usage of the terms ‘disability’ and ‘dis-ability’  and whether we felt differently about the connotations of the labels.  
We used to use the term ‘Big Helper’ as sometimes the actual individual would change, or be absent for some reason.  Someone else could then be called upon to be the ‘Big Helper ‘ for the session.  

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What you say about the way we look at a word - 'disability' or 'dis-ability' is so interesting Cait. And it is so true that our system is set up to require a 'label' in order to get the support needed for a child and their family. As Stephen says in his article, having conversations about the language we use is so important to keep us mindful of the impact - positive or negative - of the words that are available to us. 

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