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Inclusive language and special needs

I have a confession to make. I really strongly dislike using the term ‘special needs’.

The term is fraught with problems. No individual student’s needs are particularly special. Or perhaps conversely, all students have unique learning needs that could be termed special.

This video underlines it better than I ever could:


So why on Earth does our group have this term in our name? Well, to be fair we are undergoing somewhat of a rebranding. Our original group name was very long and is hard for even me to remember. These days we are going by BCEdAccess. This reflects that our group’s primary purpose is to provide information and support to parents around their children’s right to equitable access to education.

However, I still use the term special needs with some frequency, even though I find it uncomfortable. There are a few reasons for this. The most important one is that it is the current term in the BC School Act:

BC School Act

It is also the name on the Manual (although generally the department has been rebranded to Inclusive Education):

Special Education Services Manual

And it is the term still used in many policies that affect the children of the parents in our group.

Other reasons have to do with public perception and understanding. This term identifies a specific cohort to the general public and is used in media, etc.  Honestly it has seemed to me like a very big task to both raise awareness in the public eye about the issues for these particular students, and to also change the language used at the same time.

I probably won’t stop using the term fully until I have a viable replacement that includes all students that currently fall under this category in the BC School Act.

But I’m having a bit of a crisis of conscience. Because there’s another term that I like to use a lot, and that’s inclusion. Inclusion is an interesting word because it is used differently in different circumstances both in the education system and society in general.

Currently in the media you hear a lot about inclusion around the SOGI curriculum resources (for more information about them, look here):


In this particular case the word inclusion is referencing LGTBQ2S+ students. I think this is a wonderful curriculum resource and I think it’s going to help a lot of children.

For my part, when I say inclusion, I’m generally referring to students with ‘special needs’, as defined in the Act. But, more properly inclusion is about all people feeling a sense of belonging in a community.

So it really does refer to all marginalized groups. It would be great to see curriculum resources similar to SOGI that promote inclusion of some of those other groups. It’s all to the same end – providing children with a solid foundation in inclusion and diversity.

Circling back around to my main point. I’d love to take part in discussions around new language. The bottom line is that the term special needs is exclusive language. It is othering. And we need to move beyond this.

I have seen some use diverse learners, others use the term complex learners, students with exceptional needs, and there are other terms out there as well.  I am seeing this shift in parent advocacy, and also in more official District and school documents.

Let’s talk. Are you a student who is designated as special needs in the public school system? What do you think about this terminology? Are you a parent, and educator, a trustee, a Ministry of Education staffer? Have you already been working hard on trying to shift the language around this term?

How can we move forward from this antiquated language and be more inclusive?  Members of our group have been concerned about this issue since we started three years ago.  I clearly don’t have the answer but I want to take part in exploring the question.

2 thoughts on “Inclusive language and special needs”

  1. While I totally agree with you as a parent of two children with autism and a trustee, language is hard to change. In our school district we use the term complex learners, some parents know what that means, but most don’t. I don’t think of my children as special needs, my children have autism. It is not who they are but a part of them. A few years back the term intellectual disability was being introduced, but it never really went any where. Labels for too many years have always been used to identify the deficit in people. Why can’t labels be used to indentify the supports one needs, or the tools needed to educate them. My children have autism and are not special needs; because lumping our children under one umbrella term diminishes who they are.

  2. The Ministry of Ed already has, in the works right now, a language change of the Manual to “Inclusive Education” (replacing Special Education). I’d pay very careful attention to their proposed changes as it will affect all our kids

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