It’s Time to Change How We Talk About Disability in Education

The managing director of Berklee's newly renamed Institute for Accessible Arts Education makes the case for why our language surrounding disability matters.

October 13, 2022

“Language is powerful, and the language that we use communicates values, attitudes, and power differentials,” says Rhoda Bernard, managing director of Berklee’s recently renamed Institute for Accessible Arts Education. That’s why, as she looked at how the language around disability has shifted in recent years, and as she responded to feedback from disability advocates, Bernard knew that the time had come to update the name of the institute, formerly known as the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs.

Rhoda Bernard

Rhoda Bernard

Changing the name of the institute, which offers arts education programming for disabled individuals of all ages and provides training in accessible arts education to students and professionals, also presents a valuable opportunity to explore how and why the way we talk about disability has evolved—both in professional and personal settings. So we asked Bernard to share a bit of background on the institute, explain the reasons for the updated name, and discuss the profound effects that changes in language can have on the world around us. In this conversation, Bernard makes the case for dropping “special needs” from our vocabulary surrounding disability, highlights the importance of deferring to the preferred language of people with disabilities, and provides more helpful tips for how to have empathetic and respectful conversations about disability.

This institute first launched at Berklee five years ago, having grown out of a program you headed up at the Conservatory. Could you say a little about how that came about, and about the work the institute does on campus and in the surrounding community?

The work of our institute began in 2007 at Boston Conservatory. At the time, I was the chair of the Music Education Department there. As part of that work, I established partnerships with a range of organizations so that our graduate students could gain hands-on experience teaching music to people of all ages. One of the partnerships was with a nearby school for children with disabilities that had no music program. My students went to the school one day per week and taught music classes to all of the students. The classes were incredibly well received by the students and the school, and the music education students found their time at the school particularly rewarding and beneficial to their learning.

Not long after that I established a small-scale, private lessons program at Boston Conservatory for just one disability population—people with autism. The program was known as the Boston Conservatory Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum. On Saturdays, autistic people came to the Conservatory to take private instrument lessons taught by graduate music education students. I developed training and support systems for my students to help them better teach their students with autism. That program was very successful, and I soon began raising funds to expand the work to include arts education programs other than private lessons, a range of professional development opportunities, graduate programs, and more.

When the merger [of Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory] took place in 2016, we created the institute, at the time called the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, with me as its managing director. We spent the 2016–2017 academic year preparing and planning, and we launched the institute in September 2017. Creating the institute has led to a great deal of exciting growth for our work. We now serve 300 individuals, ages 3 to 93, in a wide range of disability populations, every week, in person and online, in our direct service arts education programs. These programs include 13 music programs, a theater program, and two adaptive dance programs. Our first-of-their-kind graduate programs in music education and autism bring together arts educators on a mission to reach every student to study with world-class experts in the field. And our professional development programs, which include an annual conference, an annual symposium, study groups, workshops, consultations, mini-courses, and more, engage educators, arts educators, and administrators from all over the world.

How did you and your colleagues arrive at the decision to update the name to the Institute for Accessible Arts Education?

When we first created the institute, I surveyed our various constituencies for input on its name. I heard from parents and families that they did not want the word "disability" in the name. I heard from educators that they wanted the phrase "special needs" in the name, so that their principals could understand the nature of our professional development activities. Based on that input, we named the institute the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs.

Language related to disability is continually changing. About three years ago, I first started hearing quiet pushback from disability advocates about the phrase "special needs" in our institute's name. 

The phrase "special needs" is an outdated phrase that many in the disability community find offensive for a number of reasons:

  • "Special needs" can sound euphemistic, as though the person using it is uncomfortable saying "disability." 
  • The phrase suggests that disabled people have needs and rights that are categorically different from what every human being needs. 
  • The disability community did not choose this phrase. It was created by nondisabled people. 
  • There is a condescending aspect of the phrase, and disabled adults, in particular, find it inappropriate.

That quiet pushback has gotten louder and louder, to the point where I would find myself apologizing to others about the institute's name. That's when I knew that we had to change the name.

At the institute, we strive to increase access to the arts and arts education for disabled people of all ages. Our mission is that we are a catalyst for the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of visual and performing arts education. By changing our name to the Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education, we align our name with our philosophy. By changing our name, we are responsible to our constituents and responsive to the community and the field.

Could you talk through a bit of the history of how we’ve arrived at this new terminology? How has the language around disability evolved since you were first training in the field, and what are the larger ideas reflected in these changes in the language we use surrounding disability?

Language is powerful, and the language that we use communicates values, attitudes, and power differentials. Overall, the disability community, the disability justice community, and the disability self-advocacy community, along with the fields of disability studies and disability justice, have been moving away from disrespectful, condescending language and towards factual, descriptive language when it comes to disability, and they have been advocating strongly that all of us join them. Words that were used to describe disabled people when I was much younger, like "handicapped" and the "R-word," today are considered offensive and disrespectful. Other terms like "differently abled" or "physically challenged" are awkward and ineffective attempts to sound positive, but they are considered condescending and sentimental. They deny the reality of the experience of disability and perpetuate the power imbalance between disabled people and nondisabled people. 

People often ask me what words they should use when speaking about disability. My first response is that if you are talking with a disabled person, you should ask them what their language preferences are, and use that language. If you are working with a specific disability population, find out what that population's preference is, and use that language. Beyond that, use factual language. Don't be afraid to say the word “disability.”

Nondisabled people also need to be careful not to use casual ableist language in their everyday speech. Statements like, "that traffic was crazy," "they were blind to my suggestions," or "what I had to say fell on deaf ears" can be interpreted as insulting or hurtful. 

People often ask me what words they should use when speaking about disability. My first response is that if you are talking with a disabled person, you should ask them what their language preferences are, and use that language.

— Rhoda Bernard, Managing Director, Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education

One other important language issue worth mentioning here has to do with person-first and identity-first language. Person-first language puts the person first. The underlying philosophy is that a disability is only one part of a person. This language is most often used by organizations outside of the disability field. For example:

  • person with a disability;
  • person who uses a wheelchair; or
  • person with autism.

Some disabled people prefer person-first language, while others object to its positioning of the disability as outside of the person, and perhaps something that could or should be "cured." Identity-first language for the same phrases would be:

  • disabled person;
  • wheelchair user; and
  • autistic person.

Identity-first language is often preferred by disability self-advocates, who argue that their disability is central to who they are, and that they are proud of their disability and do not want to change or be different.

You can see that I go back and forth between person-first and identity-first language when I speak about disabled people. This is intentional, as I believe that both perspectives are important when we talk about disability. 

That is why my advice is to ask the person with a disability what their preference is, and to use that form of language when you refer to that person.

When you consider the daily work of the institute, how do you think a change in language is going to ripple out and affect the people you serve, the staff you work alongside, and the students you’re helping to educate and train?

As we have been reaching out to our various constituencies and informing them that we are changing the name of the institute, the response has been overwhelming—and entirely positive. People are congratulating us. They tell us that they love the new name. And, most importantly, they note that this name change speaks volumes about our integrity and values as an organization, as well as our commitments to people with disabilities and the field at large. It demonstrates that we recognize that our name needs to change, and that we have the courage to act. I think that the people we serve, the staff we work alongside, and the students we're helping to educate and train are going to be proud that they are a part of a community with the integrity, values, commitment, and courage to change its name. And I think that the new name—the Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education—broadcasts to the world that access is central to who we are, what we believe, what we strive for, and what we do.

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