photo of a school bus seen through a rain-covered window

Deficit-Based Language

The only way to receive special education services for kids is by focusing on their deficits. 

I received a DM from one of you the other day about this reality: “My son’s school district emailed me his official autism report today, and the language they use in his observations is just heart breaking, I’m so sad! Ugh.”

And I remember that feeling. The pit in my stomach to hear a report of all the things Penny can’t do, all the ways she is slower than a typical kid, all the implications that as a result she is less than that kid too. 

I remember the explanation—that we have to prove the need for services, and the only way to do that is through articulating the deficits. 

The good news is that many service providers, therapists, and teachers don’t actively see our kids in terms of deficits. They see their strengths and possibilities and inherent beauty and worth. 

The bad news is that this deficit-based thinking pervades our culture, beginning with the word dis-ability itself. 

Thankfully, Peter and I were taught early on to think of Penny in terms of a growth mindset. To see her strengths and her beauty and her abilities and to encourage her in those areas. To love her for who she already was rather than see her as a defective product in need of improvement. And thankfully, many of her teachers and therapists and doctors saw her through this lens as well. 

There is a reason that these reports focus on deficits. And yet, these official reports could include the strengths and assets each child brings. They could still underscore the need for support without using terms and perpetuating a mindset of less-than. 

We can change the narrative around disability so that kids receive both the services they need and the respect they deserve. We don’t need to deny neediness and vulnerability. But we do need to uphold worthiness and possibility.   

Deficits never need to define any one of us

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