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!