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Do Words Matter?

Tuesday, May 21st, 2024

By: Judith Sandys

In 2002, when there was much debate about what terms were acceptable when talking with or about people with disabilities, Wolf Wolfensberger published an article entitled Needed or at Least Wanted: Sanity in the Language Wars. Of course, Wolfensberger understood, all too well, that using derogatory language is hurtful and harmful and stressed the importance of being was respectful, honest and clear in our communication. He stressed that we should not use words that seek to hide the reality of disability  (e.g. “differently abled”)  We should not use words that are inaccurate nor try to use words that have a common meaning to mean something else when used in connection with people with disabilities.

I was reminded of this article recently, when I read that Special Olympics in the US  is “seeking to erase the stigma associated with the word ‘special.’” Cheryl Weir, their vice president of media relations and communications explains: “Professional and collegiate athletes do not face this stigma when they are described as special. Our athletes deserve that same respect.” And, indeed, Special Olympics is planning to launch a campaign “to address the stigma” associated with this and “other words that demean people with disabilities.” Unfortunately this campaign goes against the principles that Wolfensberger identified all those many years ago and is doomed to fail.

Ideally, we are all seen as “special" by those closest to us. But beyond our intimate circle of family and friends, the word “special," when applied to people who are not disabled, generally connotes someone who has accomplished something positive and out of the ordinary, something that differentiates them from others - elite athletes, gifted musicians, inspiring teachers, outstanding actors, etc. And, of course, a person may, in this sense, qualify as special, regardless of whether or not they have a disability. 

But when the term is used to refer to a person, not on the basis of a specific attribute or accomplishment, but simply because they are a person who has an intellectual disability, it does them no favour. In these instances “special” is being used as a euphemism for disability. It may reflect the speaker’s discomfort in accepting that the someone has a disability. It may be an effort to make the disabled person feel better. Or it may just be a very bad joke at the expense of a person who is already very vulnerable. Whatever the motivation of the speaker, using this term to signal that a person has an intellectual disability is dishonest, disrespectful and condescending. It does not enhance the person’s status, but instead opens the person (or group) to ridicule, whether or not that is the intention. 

Another very current, but perhaps more subtle, example is the practice of using the term “individual” as a collective term for people with disabilities. Of course each of us is a unique individual. However, it is highly unlikely that any of us would say something like, “I am inviting four individuals for dinner this Saturday” UNLESS all such individuals were people with disabilities. My friend told me about visiting a residence where the support worker commented that “a past individual” had visited last week. And in talking about the impact of the pandemic, one manager said: “It’s been hard for the staff but even harder for the individuals.” Like the misuse of “special” the misuse of “individual” in this way does no favour to people with disabilities. Indeed, referring to disabled people collectively as “individuals” is, ironically, very deindividualizing. 

The other very important message of Wolfensberger’s article is that we should not overestimate the impact of changing the words we use. While language that is dishonest or demeaning is harmful and must be avoided, we must not assume that using appropriate language will, in and of itself, have a major impact on the lives of people with disabilities. As SRV theory teaches us, the way we can increase the likelihood of people with disabilities having access to the good things of life is to support them to have valued social roles.

Of course, there are many other issues relating to Special Olympics and its impact on the lives of people with disabilities, but those are not the focus of this particular blog. 

To learn more about social role valorization, register for one of our events today.


Wolfensberger, W. (2002). Needed or at Least Wanted: Sanity in the Language Wars. Mental Retardation, 40 (1) 75-80

Republished in 2011 in Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Vol. 49 (6)

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