Why language is important when leading Scouts with special needs

We never call Scouts with special needs “special-needs Scouts.” Why, you ask?

That’s because word choice matters, and Scouters on the Disabilities Awareness Committee recommend using person-first language that describes what a person has, not who a person is.

“Even though it does get a bit wordy and awkward in everyday speech,” committee chairman Tony Mei says, “this emphasizes the personhood of the individual and places the disability as a secondary condition that the individual must live with.”

Usually, this means sticking with phrases that start with “a person who … ” or “a person with … ” or “a person who has … ”

Other examples of the right and wrong word choices:

Don’t refer to two groups of people as “disabled” and “normal.” Refer to them as “people with a disability” and “people without a disability.”

Never call someone “retarded,” “slow” or a “special person.” He is a person with an intellectual, cognitive or developmental disability.

Someone isn’t “wheelchair-bound.” He “uses a wheelchair.”

It isn’t a “handicapped” parking space or bathroom. It’s “accessible.”

She isn’t a “midget.” She is “short of stature” or a “little person.”

This is not about political correctness; it’s about treating people with respect.

It can be stressful wondering whether you’re using the right word. Your safest bet? Just ask the person — or his friend or parents.

“The best advice I can give is to ask the person how they prefer to be called,” Mei says. “You may be casually surprised. They may say, ‘Call me John and, by the way, I’m autistic.’ ”


  1. Thank you for the article. Great tips on respectful wording. One tip- in your article you mention not using the phrase “special-needs Scouts”. Well, right below the article in the “Related Articles” section is an image with the sub-title “How Scouter Karen Jones helps special-needs Scouts succeed”. Can you get that sub-title improved?

  2. I am not sure why they call it “with disabilities” and “with out disabilities” or “special-needs Scout” and “Scout with special needs”. I personally feel it’s a “person with different abilities” and we need to learn from them. We do this with all of my Scouts. We all have something we can teach another about.

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