Back to Blog
What terminology should we use for Children with Disabilities?

Labels for Children with Disabilities: What terminology should we use?

exceptional learners first year teacher tips Dec 29, 2020

      Throughout my life, I have seen and heard my fair share of “polite” words to describe students with disabilities. Growing up with a brother who has autism and an intellectual disability, I have heard people describe him as “special,” an “extra special learner,” a “special needs kid,” a “kid with individual needs” (don’t we all have these?) or, quite possibly my favorite well-intentioned euphemism, “God’s special angel who was sent here for a purpose,” (which, if you believe in God, aren’t we all sent here for a “purpose?”)

      If you have found yourself describing individuals with disabilities with the above “polite” terminology, please do not feel bad. You are NOT alone. In fact, I still find myself saying “I teach students with special needs,” quite often when I am trying to describe my profession to others. It is something that I have to stop myself in my tracks to not say.


In fact, when I say “I teach students with disabilities,” I sometimes will get pushback. “Don’t you mean students with special needs?” Or “Well, all students have abilities.


      The customary way that we use disability euphemisms in our society is well-intentioned, but not well-meaning. And what I mean by that is, we are describing a large group of individuals the way we think will not hurt their feelings, but in a way that is actually doing more damage than good. Let me explain.

First, let’s define disability.

      Disability is defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person's ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.” Within this definition, it states that individuals with disabilities have a condition that impairs or interferes with, or limits ability

      I think the first misconception about the term “disability” is the fact that we associate this term with “non” ability. Dr. Jen Newton is a professor at Ohio University who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in Special Education. She writes in her blog post: “Special Needs, exceptionalities, and more: Just say no to disability Euphemisms,” about the dichotomy that many people think of when they think of disability and ability. She states that:


disability is not the opposite of ability. The framing of ability and disability in this way perpetuates ableism by indicating some kind of partial ability or separateness between a person’s abilities and their disability.


      Sure, individuals with disabilities may need accommodations and modifications to complete tasks and access things that non-disabled individuals can do, but it doesn't mean they are not able to do anything. Thinking of disability in this way implies that individuals with disabilities “do not have ability.” 

So, what are some of the phrases we should shy away from?

      Dr. Newton says some of the phrases such as “High functioning/low functioning,” “dis/Ability,” and “special needs kids,” are a few of some euphemisms to begin to eliminate from our vocabulary. These terms ultimately do not center the individual with the disability, and talk about how others are impacted by an individual’s disability and/or speak in vague terms (who DOESN’T have special needs? We all do to varying degrees).

      Meriah Nichols, from “Unpacking Disability with Meriah Nichols,” explains in her blog post, “3 Reasons to say Disability instead of Special Needs,” that terms such as “Handi-capable,” “People of all abilities,” “Different abilities,” “Differently abled” and “special needs” were “made up outside of the disabled community, by people without disabilities.” By using these terms, you are denying those who have disabilities the ability to label themselves. She goes on to explain that even to describe individuals as “special needs,” is not accurate “because all people, with and without disabilities, require accommodation and have “special needs.” The difference in the case of disability is that most of us know exactly what we need to be able to work and learn effectively.”

So, what should we say instead? And why is this important for music teachers to discuss?

      Well, for starters, I will address the latter question. Music teachers need to be inclusive and aware of ALL of their learners. This goes for learners who are coming from all backgrounds, including our students with disabilities. As we have stated time and time again on this website, music teachers are just as responsible for being compliant with a child’s IEP as any other teacher in which that child has who gives them instruction in the classroom. Advocating for this student when he/she/they cannot is essential for us to do as we are an adult entrusted with their care. Therefore, ensuring that we are using correct, updated, and person-centered terminology helps us retain our student’s trust and feelings of safety.

      When thinking of what to say instead, Dr. Newton says we should focus on the “prevalence of the disability,” in society when we are describing disabilities within the classroom and education setting. Using terminology such as “high incidence” and “low incidence” describe how often the disability occurs within the population (with high incidence describing more prevalent disabilities such as ADHD and low incidence describing less prevalent disabilities like deaf blindness or rare genetic disorders). And, of course, begin using the term “disability,” in your classroom. Tell colleagues why you are using this terminology. Describe why it is a positive word, and the problems surrounding the negative connotations.


By using euphemisms for “disability,” we are overlooking the very things that make individuals with disabilities unique. By not acknowledging their disabilities for what they are, and by trying to erase that portion of them to make them seem “just like us,” we are quite literally denying a portion of who they are, a part of their humanity, and denying them the voice to tell us otherwise.


      This ableist language perpetuates stereotypes of individuals with disabilities, and erases their voice from their own narrative. In addition to this, think of the positives for students and the power that they have when they are aware of their own disability and view it through a positive lens. By being aware of one's disability, an individual can better advocate for themselves when they are themselves and adult, and no longer have others around to advocate for them. We owe it to all of our students to be their biggest supporters, their advocates, and someone who students can trust with their safety. 

So how should we talk about students?

      By using person-first language (every student is a student first) and by their disability or needs. By always being able to fall back to this, you are centering the student, the individual, and that’s just all a part of being a good teacher anyway.

Do you have any questions? Things you’d like to add? Let us know in the comments!

Be sure to get your free copy of “5 Ways to Better Serve Students with Exceptional Needs”


3 Reasons to Say “Disability” Instead of “Special Needs” (

Disability | Definition of Disability by Merriam-Webster (

Special Needs, exceptionalities, and more: Just say no to disability Euphemisms – Teaching Is Intellectual



(79) NOT SPECIAL NEEDS March 21 – World Down Syndrome Day NotSpecialNeeds - YouTube

This article was submitted by Lauren Marcinkowski contributing author for Interested in becoming a contributing author? Email resume and writing sample to [email protected]


Don't miss a beat!

New moves, motivation, and classes delivered to your inbox. 

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.