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NH advocates push to end use of ‘special’ when talking about disability

Paul Cuno-Booth
Patricia Vincent-Piet and Jim Piet outside the Council on Developmental Disabilities' office in Concord.

Disability rights groups in New Hampshire are pushing to end use of the word “special” when talking about people with disabilities.

They say the term is demeaning, casts people with disabilities as “others” and suggests they don’t belong in the same spaces as everyone else.

“When we say that people with disabilities are ‘special,’ we're trying to dress up our tendency to think of people with disabilities as not being normal, not being part of our community,” said Patricia Vincent-Piet, a disability advocate and member of the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities.

She said people often use that euphemism because they’re uncomfortable with people with disabilities.

“They're thinking that this person can't do that,” she said. “This person can't live in the community with them. They can't be your neighbor. They can't live in their own home. They can't work alongside you.”

The council is one of the groups behind the “Stop Special” campaign, along with the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability and the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire.

The campaign – its slogan is “Let’s get the word out!” – encourages individuals and organizations to take a pledge to stop using the word. That pledge is on the campaign’s website, along with a language guide and videos of people with disabilities talking about why the word is harmful.

The goal is to “elevate the voice of people with disabilities who are saying, inclusion doesn't mean we should have something segregated or ‘special’ or different,” said Isadora Rodriguez Legendre, the council’s executive director. “We're just asking for supports and services that are equitable, that allow us to access things like education and employment and community spaces equitably.”

In the long term, she said, she hopes to see the word dropped from disability-related laws and policies.

Vincent-Piet said calling supportive services and accommodations “special” can suggest they’re somehow an unnecessary expense – rather than things that allow people to live full lives. In education, sports and other contexts, the term can also suggest people with disabilities should be separated from other members of the community.

What we should be doing instead, Vincent-Piet said, is creating a community that everyone can access. She said terms like “accessible” or “inclusive” do a better job conveying that.

“If you have an event and you want people with disabilities to know that they're welcome, just say ‘accessible and welcoming,’” she said. “Not that we have ‘special services available.’ ”

Jim Piet, Patricia’s husband and a fellow member of the council, recently retired after 23 years as a public relations specialist for the state’s vocational rehabilitation services. He said people with disabilities want the same things everyone else does – to work, have a family and enjoy life.

“We don’t aspire to ‘special,’ ” he said.

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.
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