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  • What's in a Word (Label, Phrase, Term, etc.)?
  • Peter V. Paul, Editor

Occasionally, my colleagues in the field of special education and I have interesting discussions about the use of words, labels, phrases, and other terminology in education and research involving children with disabilities (or with conditions or with whatever!). I have a son who has Down syndrome (as well as autism), so this discussion can be personal as well as professional. As a rule, my colleagues have no compunction about using the label mental retardation—albeit they do not frequently use the phrase mentally retarded and never use retard or the retarded. They accept the label developmental disabilities—though I think I see an occasional rolling of their eyes toward the back of their heads. That's another story or, perhaps, editorial.

I favor what I consider the more appealing (or heady) phrase cognitive or intellectual disabilities. My mistake, of course, is to assume that my choice is more humane than that of my colleagues (that's a no-win discussion). The more productive approach is to ask for clarification of one's terminology. At our lunch meetings, the qualitative or general description below-average intelligence in conjunction with below-average socioemotional development typically suffices if I want to enjoy the rest of my meal. Probing for quantitative descriptors involving the number of standard deviations below the mean, the issues of intensity and duration, and even what it means to assess intelligence and socioemotional development (e.g., Heward, 2009; Salvia, Yesseldyke, & Bolt, 2010) elicits harsh stares at the least and causes acid indigestion at the most.

Let's set aside the argument on whether a particular word, label, phrase, or term is more humane, appealing, or even accurate. (I will not touch politically correct.) The following list of questions should be asked, at the least: Is the description or definition of a word important for conducting and understanding scholarly research? Why or why not? How much information is adequate? Adequate for what purpose? Does this depend on your research questions? The focus of your manuscript? Should it be dictated by your epistemology or philosophy? Obviously, this list of questions is not exhaustive.

As you read the articles in this issue of the Annals, I am certain that you will be able to develop a list of words, labels, phrases, or terms that are pertinent to the above discussion. And if you engage your colleagues in a discussion to define or clarify the items on your list, you might not reach a consensus immediately—or ever. There are two controversial words, at the least, that come to my mind and are examined briefly in the rest of this editorial: deaf and literacy.

Deaf or deaf (or Varying Levels of Hearing Acuity or Hearing Loss!)

In almost every article of this Annals issue and in those of past issues, you will encounter the terms deaf, Deaf, and hard of hearing—and, occasionally, hearing impaired, hearing impairment, hearing disability, and hearing loss. I suspect that, for some individuals, deaf or hard of hearing now seems more humane or, rather, an improvement over hearing impairment or hearing disability. For others, this litany of name-calling might cause rolling of the eyes or elicit a George Carlin rendition of useless terms or phrases in our society—that is, in our case, useless for advancing knowledge about the field.

It seems to be somewhat clear or acceptable that Deaf with a capital D refers to members of the Deaf culture or Deaf world, or people with a Deaf identify—albeit these phrases can also be subjected to endless interpretations and debates. That is, we may need to provide additional information about the participants to arrive at some understanding of what it means to be a member of Deaf culture or to have a Deaf identity. We might be able to agree that Deaf with a capital D refers to members of a sociological group, much as do other phrases such as African Americans and Latino/a Americans. However, even if we use these [End Page 235] other phrases, I wonder if Deaf Americans might be more accurate—but that's another editorial as well...


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