The case against “special education”
A disabled journalist explains why journalists should replace the default term used by educators and school systems
By Julia Métraux
When covering school board meetings, I often heard terminology that contributed to feeling “different” and not smart enough during my years as a disabled K-12 student.
The term is “special education.”
I don’t blame school board presenters for using this term, as they did at West Contra Costa Unified School District, the district I covered for the Richmond Pulse while completing my graduate degree in journalism.
After all, the name of the department that helps disabled kids is the “Special Education Department.”
But, still, I wish K-12 schools would retire the term “special education,” so people wouldn’t refer so often to disabled kids’ needs being special.
And I wish that journalists who cover schools would consider retiring the term altogether.
The phrase can cause harm in several ways.
First, disabled kids’ accommodations are not special, and framing them that way may increase stigma by making it sound as though kids are somehow getting an advantage.
Second, euphemisms for disability make it seem like disability is a shameful word.
And they contribute to internalized ableism, teaching disabled people from a young age that it’s best for that part of them to be invisible, if possible.
I’m not the only one who thinks that journalists should think hard about whether or not to adopt schools’ language
Guidance from both National Center on Disability and Journalism’s and The Associated Press advise that framing disability accommodations as “special” can be harmful.
NCDJ Executive Director Kristin Gilger told me in 2020 for a Poynter piece that she hopes that the guide can be a tool to help people keep up with evolving language regarding disability.
“Language with regard to disability changes very quickly,” she told me, “Even if you don’t mean any offense, it can be harmful if you choose some words over others.”
NCDJ’s current recommendation is to avoid using “special needs” when describing a person with a disability or the programs designed to serve them, with the exception of government references or formal names of organizations and programs.” AP’s guidance is similar.
And yet, I often see “special education” used outside of formal titles and names.
For example, in an Oct. 3 Education Week article on how a federal grant may help schools retain mental health workers, the journalist writes that advocates hope that schools use a grant to support “growing needs in student mental health and special education.”
Replacing “special education” with “disability support” would have made the same point and would align with the NCDJ and AP’s guidance on this topic.
Even professional journalism associations like Education Writers Association still use the default language.
EWA published a “Special Education” package in May 2021, and every article in that package uses the term special education. Headlines include these: “History and Background: Special Education” and “Five Question to Ask: Special Education.”
Regardless of newsroom practices, individual journalists who write about schools also should reflect on their language choices.
Just recently, I used the term “special education” to describe teachers who work with disabled students.
Even though that is the language the school district uses, I’m not required to stick to it, especially without the context of giving the name of the department or a position.
I wish I had found another way to accomplish the same purpose without using language that I myself find harmful.
Like everyone, I’ve gone through an evolution in my thinking.
When I was in elementary school, I used the term “special education” to refer to the office in my school where I would go for speech and occupational therapy.
But after learning more about the disability community and disability rights, I switched to other wording.
Reporters, too, can change the language they use — and have conversations with their newsrooms about it.
But that doesn’t seem to have happened yet.
CONSULTING WITH DISABLED PEOPLE
Thinking about language choices reminds me of the disability slogan, “Nothing about us without us,” popularized by James Charlton.
It’s advice journalists should take to heart by including the voices of disabled people in their stories. These are the people with first-hand insights into how ableism can appear in education reporting, even if journalists are following what they believe is simply the status quo.
When it comes to use of the terms “special education” and “special needs,” what’s being asked isn’t really that big of a lift. There is a clear alternative term to use, which is “disability services,” the name of the department where I go for accommodations now that I’m in college.
It’s straightforward; it’s not a euphemism, and I personally do not think it holds as much stigma.
Some journalists are taking this approach.
For example, Mary Retta’s Teen Vogue article “Autistic Students Want a Safer, More Equitable School Experience,” which was published on Dec. 30, 2021, uses the term “special education” twice, once in the name of the Office of Special Education Programs and once in a quote.
In addition, Retta used identity-first language – autistic person versus a person with autism – which more and more autistic adults prefer. The NCDJ says that while there is not universal agreement within the autistic community, “many prefer to be described as ‘autistic.”
Above: The author’s piece on Canadian media needs to take further steps in recognizing diverse preferences in disability language – J-Source
Debates and conversations about the term “special education” require education journalists and education news teams to look at how we ourselves view disability.
We must keep in mind that our reporting and language use can affect how disabled kids and their families – and society as a whole –view disability.
Julia Métraux (she/her) is an independent reporter and current graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can view her work at https://juliasmetraux.journoportfolio.com/ and follower her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/metraux_julia
This essay is part of a series of reflections by current and former education journalists commissioned by The Grade, an independent project to improve coverage of education issues. You can follow The Grade here.
Previously from The Grade
How to write better stories about students with disabilities (Amy Silverman)