How to speak about additional needs

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Additional Needs Blog

Scouts are committed to providing young people with an accessible and inclusive environment. One aspect of that environment is the language we use to communicate with our young people and their parents or carers.

When first introduced to your group, a young person’s carer will probably inform you of any additional needs. However, young people sometimes have difficulties that have flown under the radar, so you may be the first person to notice them. Speaking with a carer about how best to include their young person is often the easiest way to approach this conversation, so here are some key terms to bear in mind when doing so:

Additional needs

These refer to the individual requirements of a child or young person with a sensory, communication, behavioural, physical or learning disability. This also includes long term and life limiting conditions and medical conditions. It’s a general term, used to refer to any individual situation that may require an adaptation.

The term ‘special needs’ is out-dated terminology and should be avoided, as it implies a requirement that is outside of what is typical. ‘Additional’ instead places the focus on the need for further knowledge.

Special Educational Needs (SEN) is the term used in education to refer to young people who have a specific diagnosis which requires additional support or adjustments to allow learning within a formal education setting. This includes difficulties in social skills, behaviour, reading and writing, understanding, concentration and physical needs.

It’s important to never use ‘normal’. For example, instead of saying ‘a normally developing young person’, you could use ‘typically developing young person’.


Disability refers to the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the everyday life of the community, on an equal level with others, due to physical and/or social barriers. We would usually refer to ‘a disabled person’ or a ‘disabled young person’. This term places the focus on a person being disabled by society.

Never frame a disability as negative. Don’t refer to a disabled young person as ‘afflicted by’, ‘a sufferer of’, ‘dealing with’ or ‘a victim of’. Where appropriate, refer to the individual and then their condition. Also, don’t say ‘person in a wheelchair’, ‘wheelchair-bound’ or simply ‘wheelchair’, as this defines a positive, mobility-aiding device as a negative burden. The acceptable term is a ‘wheelchair user’.

Perhaps the best way to frame or think of this is to consider Scouts as the disabling factor for a young person.

Never group together individuals with a shared disability with phrases like ‘the blind’ or ‘the disabled’. Do not refer to a non-disabled person or group of people as ‘able-bodied’ or ‘normal’.

Here are some examples of bad practice:
‘Is Malcolm able-bodied?’; ‘Since Steven is wheelchair-bound…’; ‘Claire isn’t normal, she’s autistic.’ or ‘Maria’s a diabetic.’ or ‘Kamal is an epileptic.’

And some examples of good practice:
‘Steven is a wheelchair user?’; ‘The Group is responding to Claire’s needs.’, ‘How should we take care to not trigger Kamal’s epilepsy?’; ‘The campsite is accessible for disabled people.’


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Accessibility refers to the methods by which people with a range of needs find out about and use services, advice, information and opportunities. This usually applies to such groups as disabled people, people with caring responsibilities, people on low incomes or other socially excluded groups, find out about and use services, advice, information and opportunities.

Accessibility is the preferred term as it places the focus on the environment or service as presenting the barriers, rather than presenting the individual as being the problem.

An example of bad practice would be:
‘Steven can’t come up the stairs because of his wheelchair.’

An example of good practice would be:
‘Our meeting place needs to have wheelchair access so Steven can enter.’

All Scout Groups have a duty within the Equality Act 2010, as part of a membership organisation, to make reasonable adjustments to enable individuals with disabilities to access Scouts.


Inclusion describes welcoming and including all people irrespective of age, disability, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, medical or other needs, or sexual orientation. It refers to processes aiming to remove the barriers and factors which lead to exclusion, isolation and lack of opportunity.

The term makes the practice of being inclusive the mutual responsibility of everyone who is already a member of the group. It may refer to the physical and social elements of being included or the cultural and psychological elements of belonging and feeling included. Try to avoid the term ‘integrate,’ as ‘inclusion’ places the expectation to adapt on the environment or social majority.

An example of bad practice would be:

‘Jamie isn’t integrating well in the section due to his additional needs.’

An example of good practice would be:

‘Tell me about Jamie’s additional needs and how we can include him.’


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Impairment refers to the loss or limitation of physical, mental or sensory function on a long-term or permanent basis. Most impairments or disabilities are not visible. Hidden disabilities include mental and cognitive disabilities, some hearing and visual impairments, epilepsy and diabetes.

Never use the term ‘mental age’; it is not to be considered within Scouts to assess a young person’s access to a section or activity. When referring to an individual with autism, the preferred term is ‘autistic person’, as autism is a part of a person’s character. This is different from other conditions. You would refer to a ‘person with epilepsy’ or diabetes, or so on, rather than an ‘epileptic person’.

Challenging behaviour

Some young people with additional needs may display challenging behaviour, which may be physical (hitting, throwing, and so on) or verbal (swearing, making loud noises, and so on). The young person shouldn’t be defined or labelled by their behaviour, avoid calling them ‘naughty’. Language used should reflect that the young person may not be intending to cause a problem or to cause harm. The term ‘challenging behaviour’ is therefore used.

An example of good practice would be, ‘we have developed a Code of Behaviour to promote positive behaviour and reduce challenging behaviour’. Guidance around promoting positive behaviour can be found here.

Further resources

The breakdown above provides a general overview for communication concerning young people with additional needs. We’ve also compiled advice for our volunteers on how to form a helpful relationship with the parents or carers of such young people, found here. Ultimately, the young people themselves (or their parents/carers) should be the authority on how they or their needs are referred to, so take the above guidance with a pinch of salt.

Scope is a disability charity which has a helpful page on the topic of discussing disability. There are further resources for specialist areas on discussing autism and discussing and understanding mental health.

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