GERNSBACHER, M. A., RAIMOND, A. R., BALINGHASAY, M. T., & BOSTON, J.S. (2016). “Special needs” is an ineffective euphemism. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 1:29. DOI:
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Although euphemisms are intended to put a more positive spin on the words they replace, some euphemisms are ineffective. Our study examined the effectiveness of a popular euphemism for persons with disabilities, special needs. Most style guides prescribe against using the euphemism special needs and recommend instead using the non-euphemized term disability; disability advocates argue adamantly against the euphemism special needs, which they find offensive. In contrast, many parents of children with disabilities prefer to use special needs rather than disability. But no empirical study has examined whether special needs is more or less positive than the term it replaces. Therefore, we gathered a sample of adult participants from the general population (N = 530) and created a set of vignettes that allowed us to measure how positively children, college students, and middle-age adults are viewed when they are described as having special needs, having a disability, having a certain disability (e.g., is blind, has Down syndrome), or with no label at all. We predicted and observed that persons are viewed more negatively when described as having special needs than when described as having a disability or having a certain disability, indicating that special needs is an ineffective euphemism. Even for members of the general population who have a personal connection to disability (e.g., as parents of children with disabilities), the euphemism special needs is no more effective than the non-euphemized term disability. We also collected free associations to the terms special needs and disability and found that special needs is associated with more negativity; special needs conjures up more associations with developmental disabilities (such as intellectual disability) whereas disability is associated with a more inclusive set of disabilities; and special needs evokes more unanswered questions. These findings recommend against using the euphemism special needs.