Language Development and Ableism: Recommendations for Behavior Analysts

Authors: Bryan J. Blair, Ph.D., LBA/LABA, BCBA-D and Jenelle Bartlett, M.S., BCBA, LBA

Language is one of the most complex human behavioral repertoires that can take a variety of forms including spoken words, sign language, writing, drawing pictures, and pointing to symbols/images that represent aspects of the world around us. B.F. Skinner’s analysis of human language, Verbal Behavior (Skinner, 1957), is one of the most influential and consequential works in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) (Petursdottir & Devine, 2017; Schlinger, 2008) but it is often ignored by practitioners and researchers outside of ABA for a variety of reasons including but not limited to misconceptions, misunderstandings, generalizations, and inaccurate inferences made by readers and critics of Skinner’s writing (Chomsky, 1959, Palmer, 2006). One of the most important contributions of Skinner’s analysis of language is that communication, like other types of acquired human behavior, is functional and that the basic principles of behavior analysis can account for a wide range of forms of language. Given the pervasiveness and diversity of functional human communication types, the field of ABA must examine how its conceptual foundations and technical terminology are applied in both research and clinical practice to ensure the individualization and social validity of its support strategies across a range of client needs, preferences, and behavioral repertoires.

In an effort to illustrate the functional aspects of language, Skinner (1957) and other behavior analysts have demonstrated that language isn’t only vocal or spoken and can be of almost any topography (Blair & Farros, 2019; Meindl et al., 2018; Michael, 1982; Michael, 1985; Vargas, 1982). In the process of this analysis, though, forms of verbal behavior that do not include speaking or listening (e.g., sign language, PECS, gestures, etc.) are often presented and categorized together as alternatives to typical language development and not appropriately conceptualized as independent idiosyncratic functional and topographical modalities with specific characteristics often very dissimilar from vocal speech and/or spoken/written language itself.

Students of Skinner’s analysis of human verbal behavior are typically immediately introduced to the functional aspects of communication and are usually subsequently presented with the distinction between verbal and nonverbal behavior and the distinction between vocal verbal and nonvocal verbal behavior in an effort to emphasize the functional, as opposed to topographical, aspects of language. For example, pointing to the door to ask your friend to close it would be considered nonvocal but verbal because the gesture might be a request that is reinforced by the friend who sees the gesture but it is not a vocalization. While a vocalization like coughing would usually be considered vocal but nonverbal because it is a vocalization but it is not reinforced by someone who hears the cough. This binary distinction between vocal verbal and nonvocal verbal, though, appears to be minimally incomplete and ultimately discriminatory and not inclusive of a range of communication modalities. Many behavior analysts continue to use Skinner’s functional analyses of language, but, perhaps it is time to update and also consistently use Skinner’s formal categories (e.g., speaker, writer, listener, viewer, etc.) as well.

If a person does not have an identified disability, communication-based or otherwise, daily life might appear to be relatively easy to navigate. Every human being has challenges that they must overcome, but, in many ways, the modern world was, and is still, designed and structured for people without disabilities, or people who are able. This systemic discrimination is often referred to as ableism and there are thousands of examples found in daily life. Consider the height of shelves in a grocery store, the absence of elevators in the majority of subways in New York City, limited availability of sign language interpretation (Gittleson, 2021), websites designed for people who can see, lack of braille in public spaces, non-disabled actors/actresses portraying disabled people, widespread use of offensive words related to disabilities in casual conversations, and the design of classrooms and educational settings. Ableism is exemplified in countless ways for a range of human activities, including daily activities like communicating with others, reading, and accessing publicly funded resources.

The primary mode of communication for a considerable majority of people takes the form of spoken language or vocalizations. Often, when a person uses other methods to communicate, these methods are referred to as alternative or special because only a minority of the population uses that particular mode. Of course, those communication methods are in no way alternative or special to the communicator, and behavior analysts should be mindful of how they refer to all forms of communication. Referring to a person’s primary functional type of communication as nonvocal verbal suggests that the form is somehow an alternative to vocal speech, or in some way a burden on listeners, and it might inadvertently prioritize the development of vocal language. These are clear examples of ableism in behavior analysis.

ABA focusing primarily on the binary categories of vocal and nonvocal behavior ironically facilitates the rejection of certain topographies of functional and adaptive verbal behavior and language development for the millions of people who communicate through means other than vocalized speech, ultimately contradicting one of the original goals of Skinner’s functional analysis of types and forms of language. Consider the Deaf community, who often use American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is a fully developed independent language, with unique and complex grammar entirely different from spoken and written English (Liddell, 2003). In fact, learning to read English requires additional supports for many children who are born deaf as the phonetic component of English has little to no function in decoding in ASL (Supalla et al., 2017). As a language, ASL requires no vocal verbal behavior, and traditional stimuli for auditory listener behaviors are also absent; despite this, signs function in much the same way in ASL as spoken words do with vocal verbal behavior. However, behavior analysts’ abilities to program for and conceptualize the verbal behavior of people who use sign language is at best, often under-developed, and this can lead to inadequate and ableist vocal/spoken and auditory systems and supports for a wide range of communicators for whom vocal/spoken language might never be appropriate. Behavior analysts are ethically (Behavior Analyst Certification Board, 2014) and morally required to target socially valid and relevant skills (e.g., learning ASL) for all clients even if others, given ableist tendencies, resist this approach.


Given the fact that so much of human language and communication takes a form other than the production of vocal sounds and/or responding to auditory stimuli, and given the rich diversity of these modalities across the range of human existence, we propose the following recommendations for practitioners, instructors, and researchers when referring to human language.

  1. Training Terminology. Behavior analysts should de-emphasize the vocal/non-vocal distinction, both in the context of Skinner’s original functional analysis and more contemporary analyses of human communication. Specifically, behavior analysts should consider all topographies of verbal behavior when assessing and developing programs for language development, including sign language, picture-based, gesture-based, written, etc., and resist the urge to categorize a specific response as vocal or nonvocal, and instead refer to the topography of the response by name. Examples of how to improve the precision of our terminology might be the inclusion of multiple vignettes and case examples of several different topographies of what we currently categorically refer to as nonvocal as well as a specific focus on the distinctions between selection-based and topography-based communication modalities (find more information at Michael, 1985) in graduate and clinical training programs. This will most likely result in more socially valid interventions for consumers whose method of communication does not include spoken words or listening.
  2. Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Worldview. Behavior analysts should consider shifting from a speaker and listener paradigm to a more inclusive worldview in which a full range of antecedent stimulus and response product sensory modalities are specifically represented; continuing to use labels like speaker and listener might unintentionally further an ableist worldview from the perspective of vocal speakers and auditory listeners, both conceptually and in practice. We do not suggest a universal or general categorical term that is inclusive of every combination of antecedent/response modality, but, individual researchers and clinicians can and should consider the sensory modality of communication when referring to the participant and/or learner behaviors, instead of using the default terms of speaker or listener.
  3. Verbal Behavior? Behavior analysts should reconsider the term verbal behavior in general. Practitioners and consumers of ABA services who are not familiar with some of the terminology used by the field of ABA might too easily substitute and/or confuse verbal with vocal and, intentionally or otherwise, discriminate against all communicators who do not speak vocally or listen auditorily via ableist structures that tend to prefer and prioritize vocal language over other forms of communication. To retain the functional characterization of language as behavior, behavior analysts could use the term communicative behavior. The more important result of reconsidering the term verbal behavior, though, is incorporating more specific individualized terms to refer to communication types, instead of general categorical terms like verbal or vocal/nonvocal.  Ultimately, this would not only be more accurate and conceptually systematic but it would also establish a commitment of our field to shaping the skillset of future behavior analysts who will be more likely to develop inclusive and diverse programs, interventions, educational systems, trainings, and support strategies for a complete range of learner profiles.

Dr. Bryan J. Blair is currently an Assistant Professor at Long Island University, is a licensed behavior analyst and doctoral-level Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D), and has worked with children and adults for over 15 years in a variety of settings. He received an M.S. in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) from Northeastern University in 2007 and a Ph.D. in ABA from Endicott College in 2017. He also provides digital technology, educational technology, and instructional design consultation. Dr. Blair has presented on topics in ABA, educational technology, instructional design, supervision, and autism spectrum disorder at state, regional, national, and international conferences. He has also published research in peer-reviewed journals, and has authored book chapters, encyclopedia entries, and invited blog posts. His research and professional areas of interest include complex human behavior, improving learning outcomes, verbal behavior, staff training, parent consultation, instructional design, digital learning, and BCBA/Clinical supervision.

Jenelle Bartlett is a clinical director at a private practice which uses Precision Teaching. She entered the field of behavior analysis in 2013 and has served clients in the autistic community in both the United States and Australia. Jenelle serves as the Adult Services committee chair for the Washington affiliate chapter of ABAI; the development of quality adult services is an area of passion and interest for her. Currently, Jenelle is a doctoral student at Capella University, where she is studying the effects of preference for instructional conditions on rates of learning for practicum students.