What Should I Say Part 1

This is a part of a series called That's a good question designed to provide answers to questions I commonly receive from interested individuals. I do not claim to have all the answers, nor do I attempt to provide concrete answers to every question. However, I do hope to provide opportunities to rethink existing questions.

That's a good question

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” — Mark Twain 

I regularly receive questions about names and labels. Generally, the question goes something like, “ What should I call my ministry, Special Needs, Disability, Disabled, Differently-Abled, Handicapped, Impaired, etc.?” This is an important question and will not be settled in a few blog posts here, but my goal is to engage here in meaningful conversation.

Simply because a topic is controversial does not mean we should not attempt to add clarity and understanding. To that end, I want to spend more than one single blog entry to address this.

First, in this post, I want to lay out a framework for language and labeling, and why these are both so important. In the second post, I will look at some historical approaches to labels and approaches to talking about disability. Finally, I will use the third post to explain why I prefer to utilize the term “disability” and what the implications are in that regard.


Language and labels are important. Wolf Wolfensberger argues that labels are important in the work of either removing stigma or creating stigma. Moreover, he claims that images are conveyed through this labeling process. He says::

Images are also conveyed by the names of services, of service settings, of various services practices such as its programs and activities, and of its servers. A service which has a culturally valued and otherwise positively-imaging name will be more enhancing for its recipients than one which has a peculiar or even stigmatizing name” (p. 16-17, as quoted in Tumeinski & McNair). 

As Christians the question of whether the label or name is consistent with a view that the individual is an image-bearer of God should be of utmost importance.

I will write in a later blog post about person-first vs. disability first. I will get into words like special needs, handicapped, differently-abled, and more. For now, I want to emphasize one important point. The name given to a child at birth (mine was Michael) should be our default approach. Moreover, when I am working with parents, I willingly take their lead in how they discuss the topic.

That being said, the question of “what do I say” is typically presented to me by professionals or ministry volunteers who are thinking about organizational labels which presents a different challenge.

To that point, I will close with some questions I think will get you reflecting on your word choices

  1. Is it spoken out of love?
  2. Does it validate the individual’s experiences both positive and negative?
  3. Does it avoid condescension or similar displays of patronizing behavior?
  4. Does it treat disability as wrong or stigmatizing?
  5. Does it honor the fact that the individuals in the program (organization, school, etc.) are made in the image of God?

A few more questions to consider come from researchers Tumeinski & McNair (2012).

  • In our spoken and written language, our conversations, our correspondence, our church bulletins,sermons, etc., do we use fairly typical, respectful, age-appropriate language to and about vulnerable church members?
  • Are we being truthful as well as loving in our language use? Are we emphasizing what we all share in common?
  • How would I feel if I were spoken to or referred to in these ways? What would be better?  (p. 17)

There is a challenge here. There are competitive worldviews and interpretations. However, there should be a desire to grow. My hope is that these frames and reflections provide opportunities for you and/or your team to think about how we might do better.

Tumeinski, M., & McNair, J. (2012). What would be better? Social role valorization and the development of ministry to persons affected by disability. Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability, 1(1), 11-22.

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