Is “Special Needs” Acceptable People First Language?

Our team at Key Ministry emphasizes the use of People First Language in our training events and throughout our ministry resources. People First Language represents an intentional effort to recognize that individuals are not defined by their disabilities. We want to communicate in a manner demonstrating respect for all people we serve and avoid language that perpetuates misconceptions that persons with disabilities are needy and dependent. Churches that participate in our Free Respite network sign an agreement in which they pledge to use People First Language at respite events.

People First Language appears to have originated from within the speech and language pathology community in an effort to develop a communication strategy to convey respect to the clients they serve. The American Speech-Language Hearing Association has developed an excellent resource on Person-First language that can easily be shared with church leaders and volunteers.

We’ve been considering the appropriateness of the term “special needs ministry” in this miniseries of posts. In our first post, we raised the concern that use of the term results in churches overlooking the needs of the largest group of families with children with conditions that present impediments to church participation and spiritual growth. Next, we discussed the challenges presented by the use of a term with no common agreed-upon definition. Today, we’ll consider whether use of the term “special needs ministry” is consistent with the principles of communication we want to model in our work.

Earlier this week, Christopher Phillips shared a very useful link with opinions from the disability community on the appropriateness of the word “special.” A handful of consistent themes run through criticisms of the use of “special.”

“Special” often carries with it the connotation of separate or segregated. Think in terms of the Special Olympics. While some kids may be most appropriately served at church in self-contained classrooms, the vast preponderance of kids with disabilities can be successfully integrated in most or all age-appropriate church activities. The vast majority of parents I meet in our practice desperately want their kids to be included in the activities and events in which their same-age peers participate. Does the church want to run the risk of parents developing a first impression that their child will be served differently than their peers? 

“Special” doesn’t communicate any specific information that helps church staff or volunteers to better understand how to meet the needs of an individual child or family. Consider “special education.” If someone didn’t have a background in education or the healthcare, would that term help them understand the nature of the services a child needs? One of the challenges churches face in launching ministry for families of kids with disabilities is fear of the unknown. Does use of vague and non-specific language help or hurt efforts to recruit volunteers and promote organizational buy-in for this type of ministry?

“Special” often means just the opposite when applied to persons with disabilities. Is it easier or more difficult to find families for children available through special needs adoption?

My takeaway on the subject…after considerable reading:

The majority of parents I work with in my practice (and an even higher percentage of kids) are desperate to not be seen as different. I have kids who would prefer to fail in school as opposed to be seen as different by their peers for walking into the special education department. I think there’s considerable risk that kids who become aware of being served through a “special needs ministry” would feel hurt and offended. I think there’s a minimal risk that parents who are currently outside the church might avoid involving kids in a “special needs ministry” because of assumptions their child would be treated differently. But why should the church run the risk of using language that might present an additional barrier to families of kids with disabilities connecting with their larger family in Christ through the local church?

Next in the series: If not “Special Needs Ministry,” what should we call the ministry we do?

Key Ministry’s mission is to help churches reach families affected by disability by providing FREE resources to pastors, volunteers, and individuals who wish to create an inclusive ministry environment.  We invite you to partner with us as we advance the Kingdom through our collaboration with the local and global church.  We have designed our Key Catalog to create fun opportunities for our ministry supporters to join in our mission.  The Key Catalog includes a variety of gift options for every budget.  A gift from the Key Catalog also makes for an amazing gift for a friend or loved one who is passionate about seeing the Body of Christ become more inclusive of people with disabilities.  Click here to check it out!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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4 Responses to Is “Special Needs” Acceptable People First Language?

  1. The term we use in ministry is most likely derived from the term originally used by our educational system: “special educational needs” which when used, is shortened to “special needs.” I believe the church simply borrowed the terminology that the education system created and slapped “ministry” on the end of it.
    I wonder, sometimes, instead of using a term for our ministry that is a good fit for our current cultural perspective of “disability” if we shouldn’t rather “put on the mind of Christ” and consider what term He would use. By the way, what term did He use in the Gospels for people who had a disability?


  2. drgrcevich says:

    Hi Mike,

    Since you asked, I thought I’d poke around in the gospels and see what language Jesus used. This is the most common Greek word attributed to Jesus when referring to people with disabilities:

    When the Gospel writers made references to the people Jesus healed, they would often refer to the specific disabilities the people experienced… “blind” “mute” “lame” “paralyzed.” To some degree we’re limited by language because there was little conceptualization of mental illness or developmental disability…There’s an argument to be made that the emphasis on using labels for specific conditions that were clearly incurable in that day was to emphasize the power that Jesus possessed to readers of the Gospels.

    I went back into the OT and looked at the two best examples of mental illness there…King Saul and Nebuchadnezzar…nothing with Nebuchadnezzar that’s too helpful. For King Saul we have this (1 Samuel 18:10):

    I agree…We can’t go wrong looking back at what Jesus had to say. But in a society in which more of us work with our brains than our bodies, we need a broader understanding of disability than that which existed when Jesus walked the Earth.


  3. Dr. Steve, you are thorough! The Gospel writers were always very specific so that doesn’t help us come up with a broader term, does it? I like the term that Jesus used in John 15:15: “friends.”
    Maybe Nella Uitvlugt is on the right track with Friendship Ministries! (


  4. las artes says:

    In addition, churches should move forward with some sense of urgency to accommodate children with special needs already participating in their congregation. While it may not be possible to meet each immediate need for every hour of programming, the church staff and children’s ministry team will at some point proceed (and accommodate) purely on faith. Every church already engaged in successful disability ministry has stories of accepting a child while silently praying God would work out the details and provide protection and sustainment for everyone involved.


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