by Dr. Beth Bauer

When our students walk into our studios for lessons, we often ask them how was their week, are they doing anything fun this week, or ask about something they told as at their previous lesson.  Regardless of who the student is or what  he or she told us, that person is a student or a child.  The same type of thinking refers to our students with disabilities and special needs.

Students with disabilities are children and students first.  They are students who have abilities, interests, and needs just like our students who are typical.  What makes the students different is a label or medical diagnosis.  According to The Arc, 54 million Americans have a disability and live in our communities (  The language and words we use to describe our students with disabilities is powerful.  Therefore, it is important that we use language that is respectful and showing the value of the person or student first.  

Person-First language emphasizes the person and not the disability.  By placing the person, student, or child first, the disability is no longer the distinguishing feature of the person.  Person-first language helps to eliminate negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers and fosters positive attitudes about people with disabilities.  The disability label or diagnosis is something that helps us as piano teachers to individualize the lesson material to the student’s unique learning style; however, the most important thing to us is that the student is a student.

Another area to discuss is Identity-First language.  Within the autism community, many self-advocates prefer to be referred to as “Autistic,” “Autistic person,” or “Autistic Individual” (  They believe that using the phrase “person with autism” instead of “autistic person” demeans who they are because it denies who they are.  The argument is furthered by saying that using the terminology “autistic person” recognizes the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person and autism is not a condition, and it is not a tragedy to be afraid of or hidden.

So what should we as teachers do in our studios?  The literature shows that parents, teachers, medical professionals, and therapists prefer person-first language.  Within my studio, I also prefer person-first language and use it in the classes I teach, places I speak, and discussions with studio families.  However, if a parent or student requests that I use identity-first language, I will use it and be respectful of that student and parents’ preference.  Part of living in a community and working with our families is to respect their individual differences and unique perspectives.  Above all, I try to remember that the disability label is just a label that informs my teaching.

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Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you back soon.

In addition, The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy will include workshop offerings on teaching students with special needs. The next conference is scheduled for July 26-29, 2017 in Lombard, IL (a suburb of Chicago). Information is available at