A woman with Down syndrome holds a pink flower next to her face. She is wearing a shiny metallic jacket and smiling as she displays one of the flower petals in her other hand.

The FOE Mnemonic:

Watch This:

Actors with Down syndrome explain why the phrase “special needs” harms people with disabilities in #NotSpecialNeeds by CoorDown.

#NotSpecialNeeds Video from CoorDown

Euphemisms are words or phrases that we use instead of saying something offensive.

We don’t like to say words or phrases when society tells us they are:

  • Harsh
  • Blunt
  • Embarrassing
  • Unpleasant

Take death, for example. Instead of saying “death” or “died,” we substitute phrases like “passed away,” “went to their eternal rest,” “crossed the rainbow bridge” (pets), and so on.

We do the same with disability. Instead of saying “disabled,” we’ve found ways to edge around the word with words and phrases like:

  • Differently abled
  • Diffability
  • Handicapable
  • Mentally challenged
  • Physically challenged
  • Special needs

Problem #1: Erasure

While some people with disabilities point out that their differences shouldn’t be the first thing people see about them, others argue that euphemisms are a form of erasure. Lawrence Carter-Long, who created the #SayTheWord campaign, says that people who want to see disability as just a “difference” miss out on perspective (you can read more from Carter-Long from his interview with NPR here).

Erasure also means that we become less aware of ways we need to promote inclusion. If we convince ourselves that we’re all the same without making real changes, we’re still stuck with the same problems.

Problem #2: Dignity

The second problem with using euphemisms is that many tend to be patronizing. Imagine starting a new job where you had to advocate for some changes. When your employer asks why, you tell her, “I need the changes because I’m handicapable!”

People with disabilities deserve dignified language to describe themselves – just like everyone else.

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