Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Depictions of Disability A Way with Words

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

Depictions of Disability A Way with Words

Article excerpt


This article traces our developing understanding of children with additional needs, based on four decades of text in the Australian Journal of Early Childhood (AJEC) and the Australian Pre-School Quarterly (APQ). It examines several themes by using the evolving language of the authors as a window into the changing cultural mores between 1960 and 2000.

In this kind of paper, it might be tempting to judge the earlier AJEC wordsmiths overly prematurely. It seems all too easy to be distracted from some `best practice' ideas simply because they are couched in arresting terminology which is not politically correct by today's standards. Any author who writes about `mongols' rather than `children with Down Syndrome' is a case in point.

The organisation of this paper reflects this concern. The irresistible highlights of the articles of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s are accompanied by descriptions of the issues of the day for society at large, in order more fairly to interpret central themes and the language used by contributors.

The research process employed began with a scan of all journal articles between 1960 and 2000. Those which touched on issues relating to children with special needs were set aside for further study. A total of 69 articles were placed in the final pool for analysis.


The terms used to describe people with disabilities can be a litmus test of attitudes towards them. In keeping with historical developments, the language in the disability field has evolved over the years. Perhaps the most transparent indicators of change are `people first' and sexist expressions.

(i) People First

When scanning the articles I was prepared for the earlier items to refer to people by their disability category. For example `the post-polios' (Little, 1964, p.11); `a diabetic' (Cooper, 1976); `young Downs' (i.e. an abbreviation of Down syndrome, Hay, 1986). It was rather more confronting to read in one paper (Reid & Pulfer, 1966) that a child was referred to as `a feeding problem' and `a low-grade mongol' or that a mother was counselled by her doctor not to take it home, and to leave it here because it will never do anything (where it referred to her baby with Down syndrome) (Ciardi, 1981). These terms were not only used by the authors to describe the children of interest, they were also seen in the names of institutions e.g. `Centre for the intellectually handicapped' (Woodroffe, 1963). Today, these seem very impersonal referents. However, the backdrop of the day was where normalisation, or `making available to the mentally retarded patterns and conditions of life which are as close as possible to the norms and patterns of the mainstream of society' (Nirje, 1969, p.181) was barely nascent. Additionally, people with special needs were conceptualised largely in terms of their deficits, so these terms must have seemed much more natural.

A less extreme linguistic form that persisted through the decades is where the description of the disability comes before the acknowledgment of personhood, as seen in `the brain-injured child' (Neale, 1965); `deaf/blind child' (Nuzum, 1973); `handicapped child' (Senapati & Hayes, 1988). This form still lingers in the 1990s, although it is considerably harder to find, e.g. `ADHD children' (Young-Loveridge, 1997, p.5).

Such language is not recommended today, mainly because such terms suggest that people with the same disability form an homogenous group. By obscuring the uniqueness that typifies all human beings, it is in effect depersonalising them. Instead, `people first' language is considered best practice. For example, `child with acquired brain injury' replaces `the brain-injured child' and `children with special needs' is used in preference to `special needs children'. This type of language was first noted in AJEC in 1976 (Cooper, 1976), but people first terminology was not consistently evident until the 1990s. …

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