My Facebook exploded the other day.

I had posted a question about “special needs” and “disability”, wondering if anyone would participate in a pro/con series I was thinking of running on this blog about the words. What emerged instead was a huge discussion between my disabled activist friends (and to be clear, they are adults with different disabilities; all with at least one disability) and my friends from the parent community of kids with disabilities.

In many ways, it was a reflection of where I stand at my life, at an intersection between communities. I’m in the parent community of kids with disabilities as my daughter has Down syndrome. I’m in the disabled community by dint of being deaf, with TBI and C-PTSD. Oh, and I’m an activist probably because I was born in the year of the Water Ox – it’s in my nature.

But that’s all kind of beside the point.

The point is, I asked a simple question and it exploded, which tells me very clearly that these words still bear discussion. Or rather, the swap from saying “special needs” to “disability” needs to happen, and parents of kids with disabilities need to understand why.

Reasons to Say “Disability” Instead of “Special Needs”

1. People with disabilities want you to

In and of itself, this is really the only answer anyone should need: people with disabilities want you to.

Parents of kids with Down syndrome have been on a campaign to stop the use of the word, “retard,” first and foremost because people with Down syndrome have asked us to stop saying it. Regardless of how it makes sense or not to people, we ask that people “spread the word to end the word” – quit saying the “r-word.”

Adults with disabilities ask that you say “disability” and not “special needs” when you are talking about disability. As Louisa Shiffer said,

Disabled people should control the conversation about their disabilities, and the language used about them, not their parents.

Your child with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, deafness, brain injury, dyslexia, spina bifida, blindness, muscular dystrophy – all of it – every one of them counts as a disability, and adults from every one of those communities identifies as being disabled.

That doesn’t mean every adult from those communities, just like not every adult with Down syndrome is asking you to quit saying the r-word; but enough of them, the majority of them, identify as having a disability, not a special need. 

Read Michelle Sutton’s essay, “My Needs Are Not Special

2. "Special Needs" as An Educational Term is Outdated

I myself hiccupped there. I thought that you could have a special need and not a disability, that is, that one could have an IEP for something not necessarily disability-related.

Wrong!

It’s all disability related if they receive an IEP. Anyone with an IEP has a disability; anyone receiving services or accommodation under section 504 or the IDEA has a disability.

Calling it “special needs” then makes as much sense as saying “handicapped” – it’s an antiquated, inapplicable term. Rather than saying “special needs,” it should simply be “services for students with disabilities.”

Point blank. Call it what it is.

Say the word: disability.

In the words of Lawrence Carter-Long:

A need isn’t special if other people get to take the same thing for granted.

3. All the Other Words Make Us Gag

“Handi-capable”, “People of all abilities”, “Different abilities”, “Differently abled” can be lumped together with “special needs.” They all sound patronizing, condescending.

And they are all inaccurate, unless you are talking about every single person in the entire world. In which case you are losing at trying to label the population you wanted to identify in the first place.

“Handi-capable”, “People of all abilities”, “Different abilities”, “Differently abled” and “special needs” were made up outside of the disabled community, by people without disabilities. Their continued use, and the defense of their use by people without disabilities reeks of able-splaining; that is, people without disabilities explaining disability to people with disabilities.

Kind of like man-splaining (men explaining womanhood to women), or white-splaining (white people explaining the black experience to black people). None of these “splaining” bits work well because no given population – especially a population which regularly faces and battles with oppression and discrimination – want to have their experience described to them, or be told how they should want to define themselves.

My brain and ears work in different ways than most people’s, they qualify me as having a disability. Now, that means that I will react, process, hear, absorb and perceive in accordance with my disabilities but it does not mean that I have a different ability. It will mean that I require accommodation, but not a “special need” because all people, with and without disabilities, require accommodation. The difference in the case of disability is that most of us know exactly what we need to be able to work and learn effectively. Most of the mainstream (non-disabled) population does not, and they play a guessing game throughout life in trying to figure it out.

Back to my Facebook page.

I realized in reading the discussion that ballooned around the words “disability” and “special needs” that this really wasn’t a pro/con subject. You don’t, after all, set up a pro/con conversation for the word “retard” or the word “negro.” You know you don’t say those words anymore; their period of use is over. We’ve moved on.

In this case, we’ve moved on to “disability” – a word that seems so imperfect when you look at ‘Dis’ in Latin; which a Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or having a negative, or reversing force.

But, if you look a little further down on that very same page in the dictionary there is another root of the word ‘Dis’, as pointed out by Heather Watkins and Lawrence Carter-Long:  

Latin (akin to bis, Greek dís twice); before f, dif-; before some consonants, di-; often replacing obsolete des- < Old French

The PIE root is a secondary form of *dwis- and thus is related to Latin bis “twice” (originally *dvis) and to duo, on notion of “two ways, in twain.” …hence *another* way of doing and being..

‘Dis’ = Another Way of Doing and Being

“Disabled” meaning an ability to do or be something in another way.

“Disability” meaning an ability to do or be in another way.

Then the word “disability” makes complete sense. Those of us living with a disability are absolutely living a dual existence: we move through the mainstream world which is largely inaccessible and not disabled, and we have our own experience with the fact of our bodies.

We see, hear, speak, think, learn, process, read, write, move, and/or feel in ways that are less common than most. We have a lot to offer, by dint of our experience with disability and where our interests lie. Our needs are not special, so please: say the word, as we are asking you to.

Disability.

 

Meriah
Meriah Nichols is a career counselor, teacher and blogger. Single mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one gifted 2E), she is also a Trekkie who likes her coffee hot and black.
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79 Comments

  1. So, how strongly did the parents on your Facebook page defend “special needs” and reject “disabled?” What reasons did they give? Do you have any theories about why parents stick with “special needs?” Is it because they have been told it’s the proper term and they’re just behind the times, or are there deeper motivations?

    • It was a mixed bag. Since we are friends, I encourage you to read through the thread yourself – I think you’ll find it interesting.
      But in general, it seems like some use ‘special needs’ because they don’t think their kids are ‘that different’ and can also do things (meaning that if you go by “disabled” you really ARE different and also, pretty incapable!). Pretty much going with the latin root of “dis”, and preferring ‘special needs’ over that.
      Then there are those that were told it was correct. Others prefer that over ‘disability’ as it sounds more gentle, less ‘disabled’

      • Heather Levine Reply

        The Ables came up with another fancy word to call us last year and I was deeply offended. I mean who wants to be called a Neurodivergent? Who do they think we are designer dogs? I’m a person not a cockapoo! I’m disabled! Just tell it like it is and stop trying to make it fancy! It’ll only make people fear you more if it sounds longer, bigger, and fancier than it really is. We have enough problems with government officials cutting back funds for services we needs.

    • Raymond Bellon Reply

      Calling someone a retard is much different then saying a person is retarded. One is a description and can be accurate or inaccurate, as with any description.. As in: The person’s learning ability has been retarded.

      The other is a label. As in: He’s a retard. Labels are rarely accurate.

      It’s all a matter of how you want to go through life… accurately, or inaccurately. It’s your life, you decide. It really has nothing to do with offending other people. It has to do with the quality of your own life.

      Many people love to be offended… it’s not really that big of an issue… except for those people that revel in it.

      • Do you love to be offended? Also, I am very curious if you have a disability yourself and or if you are ever a target of labels?

    • I usually stick with special needs because the connotation is more readily comprehended than disability. Too many people STILL think disability means you are in a wheel chair etc when in fact disability has a huge rage including invisible conditions. When I say my child has a disability, they see he can walk just fine and they commence to arguing with me (my son looks “typical” to the untrained eye, and it takes a while for people to realize he cannot communicate and has the mental state of a baby). I’m tired of explaining myself to ignorant people. I also think that since the history of how disabled people have been treated is so dark, that people call them special in an effort to make up for that and encourage people to not be afraid of some one who is different. In all honesty, I don’t care much about labels. Language fails to portray the accuracy of my condition and my child’s condition. I have friends who are disabled, but they hate the word. I will just respect everyone’s individual preferences. I will also be patient and not be offended as long as I know people are making an effort just like I don’t care if people refer to me as black or African American. I have more important things to worry about.

  2. Thanks for this. Both my son & one of my extended family members have Autism. And I spent 3 years, during my 20’s, working with adults with developmental disabilities. I’ve always viewed the term “disability” or “developmental disability” as a medical term or at least part of the definition of one. One we had to use frequently when reporting on or charting on our consumers. When my son was diagnosed, the diagnostic report defined Autism Spectrum Disorder as a neurologically based developmental disability involving verbal and/or non-verbal communication, sensory processing, and socialization. It wasn’t until I was discussing his diagnosis with the parent of my family member who has ASD that I discovered that other people were offended by it and considered it a derogatory or negative term. Since then I’ve encountered so many people who believe the term disability actually means or is equal to the r-word. And, to me, it seems obvious that’s NOT what it means at all, and refusing to use the term “disability” turns it into a negative term because it re-enforces the mis-perception. Yes, the consumers I used to work with all felt the term “Special” was condescending and hating being called “special”. I also hated it when people would try to tell me I was a “Special” kind of person for working with “those special people”. I felt it was demeaning to me and the people I worked with.

    • Katherine L Reply

      Hi Mary. Just wanted to let you know that Autistic people prefer identity-first language (“autistic”) over person-first language (“has autism”) – it’s an intrinsic part of our being, our world experience and our neurology; using person-first language artificially separates our neurology from our self and makes it sound like a disease.

  3. Nope. I will NOT use the word ‘disability’ instead of ‘special needs’ when it comes to the IDD community. These are NOT JUST ‘disabled’ people and I won’t make it comfortable and clean for people who claim to not see the difference between ‘disabled’ and Intellectually Developmentally Disabled. They, including the disabled people who responded to this inquiry, want to compartmentalize ALL disabled people into one round hole. My child is a square peg and I will not allow her to be pounded into a round hole just so other people’s world is nice and neat for them. As uncomfortable as it makes the disabled people feel, my daughter’s needs ARE, indeed, special – hence the term ‘special needs’. She can’t speak for herself let alone form an opinion about ‘labels’. When a person functions at an 18 month level or a six year old level they are so much MORE than just ‘disabled’. I didn’t climb up on this wagon until I saw that my daughter’s RIGHTS were being trampled by the very people who should know how that feels – the disabled people themselves. By grouping IDD in with the general disabled community she suddenly can’t work where she wants to work (a Work Center) and is expected to compete for jobs with the highly capable disabled and non-disabled people! Maybe I’m out of the loop, but the term special needs has NEVER been used when referring to the generally ‘disabled’ community. It was the ONLY way families of IDD children had to differentiate between someone who is capable of working and living in the community on their own and the very specific needs of the IDD community. They are saying it is condescending and has a derogatory connotation, but that’s only because they don’t SEE the difference between their disability and my daughter’s disability. The generally disabled community is doing great harm to my ‘special needs’ daughter! Nope, I don’t agree.

    • I whole-heartedly agree with Peggy. I am the father of a whole herd of kids. 7 of which (Praise God) are healthy head to toe. I have 2 with different disabilities. One was hit by a truck and has a TBI. The other has Spinal Muscle Atrophy. To use the term disabled is demeaning at the very best. Both of these children are “SPECIAL” (again Praise God) and they have some different NEEDS.
      My van is disabled for a broken transmission. I am disabled when it comes to woodworking. The term disabled throws a blanket of brokenness over everyone who is called disabled. They are not broken, they have some special needs, hence the title of “Special Needs” people seems to me (and everyone I ever spoke to about this) to be the most kind and caring way to describe folks with a disability. I will never change. Some days you’re the bug, some days you’re the windshield. Today they are the windshield! Enough is enough!

      • You don’t have a disability though. So… I hate to break it to you but you don’t actually have a say as to what we prefer to call ourselves.

        Also: if you read the post, I made it very clear that we are not broken, and what the definition is about. I encourage you to read it because it doesn’t actually seem like you did.

    • Peggy, I’m afraid you are out of the loop. The term “special needs” was, in fact, originally intended to refer to the general disabled community. Over time, it has become a euphemism, and a condescending one at that.

    • I agree. That’s what happens when some people try to speak for everyone.

  4. This is really interesting. I’m disabled myself- I have hearing loss and I am working towards becoming a special education teacher. I hear the words “special needs” a lot in one of my classes but I never realized the difference between disability and special needs. Each person should be able to claim whatever label they feel fits them best and labels are to be determined by the person with the identity, not by someone without it. Personally, I say I have hearing loss (not hearing impaired or hard of hearing) but I switch between saying I have a disablity and I’m disabled.

  5. Jacqui Wilson-Wilde Reply

    Okay, I live with Dyslexia and my grandson lives with Autism. I certainly understand Myriah’s argument. It is a sound argument and I think worthy of further discussion.

    I have worked around my profound Dyslexia all my life. At 72 I don’t consider it a disability. Some people don’t believe me. That’s fine. I have often felt that it is something of a gift. Perhaps this discussing can lead to perceptions that people can live with and around their disability. That they can use their difference to find ways of experiencing and sharing their different world.

    My grandson is profoundly Autistic. He is very fortunate that he has adjusted to life out in the community. He is fully integrated into mainstream public school. At age 11 he still requires all the attention and help that his younger, non-Autistic, brother needs. Because of his Autism he experiences serious difficulties in lots of situations. However, he can discuss his difficulties with me and those close to him. He is also extremely gifted. He reads far beyond his age level, his writing is amazing, he has a knack for languages which are the envy of many adults and he’s a wiz at mathematics. Let’s hope his gifts outweigh his disability.

    Myriah is an artist, she lives in a Yurt, off the grid. She has 3 children and is obviously living well with her “disability”. It sound to me that Myriah is very enabled by having to reworked her life. I hope she is living a rich and rewarding life.

    I think Myraid’s Downs Syndrome child may be described as disabled. Many Downs Syndrome children can also learn to live with this disability. I hope this will be the case, I also know it it may not be possible. This is just a hope that Myriah’s child can live with Downs Syndrome when she is no longer a child. If any one can it will be Myriah’s child.

    Having said all of that I acknowledge the non-verbal, highly troubled autistic child also living with an intellectual disability. I also acknowledge the Downs Syndrome child who is also living with a profound intellectual disability.

    It has take me an hour and a half to write this. I know I will have made mistakes. However, with modern technology I no longer feel disabled. I would love to have further conversations with people like Myriah about disability as difference and personal battles with difference and most importantly the rewards of difference.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to write this all out!

      Yes, I think it’s true that technology changes the algorithm of disability. Disability tends to lend itself well to technology, and technology to disability.

      I do a lot with my life, but it’s also a fact that I do have disabilities that affect every aspect of it. Being deaf and bi-polar change the way that I can move and interact with the world. I think I’m blessed in that I have been able to figure out what accommodations I need, and what kind of parameters I need to live my best life. Because those aspects are pretty well figured out, I do in fact live a fantastic life.

      I think the same can be said for my daughter with Down syndrome. I want to be able to help her figure those aspects out. Even with an ID, they can be figured out. There is no reason why she cannot also have her disability pieces understood and accommodated so that she can move forward with confidence and power in her life, just as you and I have, and your grandson hopefully will too!

      Much love to you. Thank you again for taking the time to comment with your thoughts, perspective and story.

  6. Hi Meriah, I am multiply disabled – multiply head injured( the first of a dozen at less than1 yr.old -thrown from back seat of car landed on dash board), three types arthritis, bursitis, degenerative joint disease, spinal stenosis and more than a dozen others. i have always disliked differentlyAbled (can I fly like a super hero-no) or disAbled; disabled has worked for me since 1975 when I tore the muscles in my spine in a work accident. I have several family members who have different disabilities. After all that I feel comfortable and entitled to give my 50 cents worth. I am comfortable w/ others using whatever works for them. Lets not use labels to divide our communities; we all need to join forces and express ourselves when others try to oppress us as a whole. Barbara

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Barbara. I wanted to figure out a way to say that in this post, but couldn’t.
      I think it’s important for the parent community to understand why we like the word “disability”, or why it works better for us than “special needs” – and to think about the fact that we’ve asked for this over ‘special needs’ or any of the other words. It’s important.
      But I won’t get up in arms over someone using “special needs” if they are fundamentally trying to create a more accessible world that integrates us all with disabilities. As you said, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.

  7. Mike Morrissey Reply

    Great article. What does the acronym “IPE” stand for? Individualized Plan for Education? Interchangeable with “IEP”?

    • Whoops! My mistake! Thanks for asking! I corrected the post; it’s meant to say “IEP”

      (Although I have disabilities, I never had an IEP – my first move into disability-work/activism was with IPE’s – which are Individualized Plans of Employment. I only started working with IEP’s after my daughter (with Down syndrome) was born. I tend to swap out “IEP” with “IPE” from habit of using “IPE”)

  8. What frustrates me are people who will be told what term someone prefers, and outright reject calling them that because they don’t like it. I find this is most common in parents of disabled children, especially when speaking with adults who live with the same disability. This ties into the same parents rejecting the experiences of disabled people as well, but that’s a different topic for another time.

    Basically, I’m frustrated by a person calling me differently abled or handi capable because when I ask them not to, because that’s how they prefer to talk about their children (and no where have I seen what the children prefer to be called, apparently that’s not important)

  9. Gale E. Quackenbush Reply

    Hey its the English language here. One word can have many meanings and be used in a variety of ways that are helpful Be thankful we aren’t debating in Chinese where an inflection of a vowel has a totally different meaning. We’d be here arguing until next year. The “R” word in English means “delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment.” In hindsight it was a poor choice of words to refer to a human being and its usage outside of the medical community just got more and more ugly in the vernacular meaning which was that someone was stupid.

    Calling someone “special” by leaning on the word and/or using finger quotations is urban-speak for saying the same thing as retarded or Not Like the Rest of Us. I think it is insensitive people co-opting the word and giving it a rude, nasty connotation. Pretty soon all words will be off limits if we give in to every popular Nazism.

    But being a part of a community, an inclusive and rich community and deserving all the benefits possible to lead a quality life, while having a “special need”, is much different. If we need to return to the word “disability” whose main, first meaning is to not have ability and if that is what the “disability community” wishes to use, I will change, too. There are many variations that we need to have at our finger tips to allow people to get what they need and be seen in a variety of roles. I feel there are times and places for both as in “disability community” where the voice and the rights specific to a group effort or a class of people – one that I am not a member of I might add – must be viewed as the norm and be considered on its unique merits such as in public laws.. Having a special need does not deny the individual their rights as a person. it may be a way to refer to and ensure that their unique way of learning or need for extra help by way of accommodation is respected and not denied, keeping them from being all they can be as a human being.

    Words are power. Let those who are subject to them choose them wisely for us.

  10. Just one thing I thought I would point out – not ALL kids with IEPs have a disability. Many gifted children are also given IEPs, and actually because they have ‘special needs’ in the classroom (for example, a need to be challenged further). Similarly I would argue that those with behavioural challenges (anger, depression, anxiety) who also have an IEP would not classify themselves as having a disability, however they may have ‘special needs’. Although I don’t think any of these categorizations fit into the definition of special needs vs. disability you are arguing here (which I think is totally valid), I do think it is important to point out that there are individuals with special needs, and also that IEPs are not only for students with disabilities.

    • That’s what I originally thought too, Rachel, but people said otherwise. I think I need to check in with DREDF (www.dredf.org) on that one – independent investigation of truth!
      Thanks for your comment.

      • Here is a an concise explanation of IEPs and 504 plans.. http://www.washington.edu/doit/what-difference-between-iep-and-504-plan

        I have found this dicussion interesting because I now work in higher education after a longer career in public schools working with students with IEPs. I recall early in my teaching career being cautioned not to used the word disability because it implied that individuals could not do things that others can do, and that was not usually accurate. Our students could achieve with special education.

        My career has spanned over 30 years and the vocabulary used in education has changed considerably over time. The term “disability” is used in higher education. When I have some time, I would like to see what terminology is now used in elementary and secondary education.

  11. Our child has two 504s for health conditions, definitely complex medical issues that can put her in the hospital and requires staff be aware but not what I would call disabled – still within most normal parameters although ranging from far ahead to very low normal depending on area.

  12. Christine Fleming Reply

    So how about . . . “challenged” as in, my kid with Down syndrome and her buds who have DS, Asperger’s, autism, other brain function issues are cognitively challenged. Some days/situation that means disabled, some days/situations that means that with effort/time/assistance she’ll get there depending upon how resourceful she can be. Thoughts?
    And thanks for your post!

    • Nope to “challenged”!! One of the points of this post is that saying that you have a “disability” does NOT mean an inability to do something; it’s more like a duality of existence. I’m disabled yet I’ve worked most of my life, have a Master’s degree, etc. Clearly, I can do things. Saying “disabled” isn’t saying you can’t do things.

      “Challenged” always rubs me wrong because honestly, the challenge in having a disability largely comes from living in an inaccessible world; NOT the disability itself. So, the challenge comes from something we can change – the way we do things – so why not change them, then having a disability would be lot more fun?!

      xo m

      • “Challenged” always rubs me wrong because honestly, the challenge in having a disability largely comes from living in an inaccessible world; NOT the disability itself. ”
        I have family and work with community members with Level 4 and Level 5 Cerebral Palsy. My brother had a stroke at 3 months old and has overcome a lot to become semi-independant.
        In both cases we use the term disability.
        However for you to say that their main problem is accommodations is based on your level of disability. They would both see you as not disabled compared to their situation. Being unable to speak without a machine, feed yourself, toilet yourself, etc is a challenge.
        In both cases they feel like they want to do everything everyone else does, and want others to accommodate that. HOWEVER they would love not to have the challenges caused by medical mistakes during their birthing and early months. They know that they would be able to walk, run, and raise a family like their siblings are able to.

  13. Hi. First I want to say I love your writing and the insights you offer. The fact you have personally struggled/lived with being different from the norm appears to have given you a much more honest and pragmatic view of what it is like to have/live with a disability. It is often difficult to know what terminology is the most respectful to use but I think the best way is to ask the people who are actually living with these issues and genuinely LISTEN to what they say without pre-conceived notions. Words have power but their meanings can also change – often words have fallen out of use due to them being co-opted as insults. I work in the medical field (in Australia) and we use the term “special needs” as it covers a variety of conditions that mean that we have to be aware that the care we give may need to be modified to take this into account. It is an umbrella term that covers physical and intellectual disabilities. I WAS interested to hear your take (and of others) as I wasn’t sure if the term disabled was seen as negative or not within the community. I agree that the “challenged” terms felt a bit presumptuous. Thanks for your work.

  14. Unfortunately, I don’t think etymology of “dis-” is relevant to modern lives nearly so much as actual modern definitions — which aren’t going to change for this prefix, it’s just too common with other words.

    IMHO, usage of “dis-(ability)” here has more of an opposite effect from what you are hoping, or wanting to promote. I disagree that “special needs” has to be patronizing, though it can be used that way. “Disability” covers a lot of issues accurately, too, but some people do want positive aspects of their neurological differences, for instance, to be recognized.

    Things like needing an environment that’s not constantly noisy and chaotic in order to function well, shouldn’t necessarily be considered a disability, imho, either — such things aren’t really good for anyone. It may sometimes be the same neurological difference that causes both a strong ability and also a strong sensitivity. Evolution doesn’t have a purpose, genetic changes aren’t divided up into “all good” and “all bad” in all cases.

    http://www.dictionary.com/browse/dis-

    • I understand what you are saying… but like it or not, I don’t see another word out there that people across the disability spectrum can (however tenuously) agree on. I think unless and until a word that actually describes the experience of living with a disability is invented or re-discovered, that’s the one that that should be used, and nothing else, ESPECIALLY nothing that was chosen by people outside of the disability community (- parents of kids with disabilities, for example).

  15. Thanks for this. I am firmly of the opinion to say disabled proudly. I have 3 offspring (they are not children, but young adults). One who has Down syndrome, one with a brain injury, and visual impairment , and one who has type I diabetes. My first two have disabilities , my daughter with diabetes does not identify with that label, because it does not prevent her from doing anything, although she needs accomodations. I hate the term special needs, but have been at a loss for a collective term that includes people with medical diagnosis. I work in a field that includes many of these children —CSHCN (Children with Special Health Care Needs) is a term used used by the Feds. Got any ideas for something different? Asking honestly.

    • Having a disability does NOT mean that it prevents you from doing anything! Ha!

      It is just a really super generic umbrella term. All of your kids have disability: brain injury, Down syndrome and diabetes ALL count.

      The medical diagnosis are the same – “disability.” To get more specific, we just need to talk about the specific disability (- medical condition) that it is. 🙂

  16. I kind of disagree with this in all instances. My son Is a very bright, very intelligent guy who had a late diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and that has been a disability/ however/ the word Learning disability rankled I used learning difference when he was in school and he sometimes got adaptations that allowed him to cope a little better with the school system. He can learn very well thank you. He learns differently. Special needs is awkward i agree however, disability Imply s he cannot learn. I also think that ADD is only a disability in this culture. We are out of the box thinkers.

    • Hi Laurie,

      1. People with disabilities learn just fine. People with and without learning disabilities, who are deaf/blind/whatever, who have Down syndrome or autism, etc. The presence of disability in a person’s life has NO BEARING on their ability to learn or accomplish whatever the hell they want to in life. Full stop.

      2. If you are white, would you feel comfortable going to a room full of African Americans and say, “you know, I don’t really buy in to your calling yourself African American – I think “negro” is a better word for you, so I’ll stick to it.” – ?

      Because using that analogy, that’s exactly what you are doing right now with “disability”

  17. I didn’t see any mental illnesses in the listing of disabilities a child might have in this article, but I’m assuming you consider bipolar or ADHD disabilities just the same as deafness or autism. ????

    • ABSOLUTELY.

      Those are very, very important to include. They might be non-visible but they definitely affect the way a person lives. Thanks for bringing that up here in the comments so that others can follow; it’s a great point.

  18. Sarah Jennifer schechtman-thale Reply

    Hi I am a person with a disability and I am glad to know this discussion is getting started. However , in regards to reason 1…not all people identify with the word disabled. I work for a company called Jj’s list that does disability awareness trainings for Chicagoland businesses. We are big on person first language. That’s where I learned that not all people like this word Some people do and that’s fine but Inwould check with each person instead of generalizing.

    • You are saying “people first language” and that’s cool; this post is about not saying “special needs.” That part has got to stop. But I agree with you, there are some pwd that really feel strongly about people first language – and why not? It makes sense! I don’t use it for myself (because “person with deafness” sounds weird) but I do for my daughter “child with Down syndrome”).

  19. Tiffany Dozier Reply

    Thank you! I have 3 autistic boys. I alternate between the terms of “disability, special needs, autistic and having autism.” When someone tells me which they prefer, I use that. Honestly, it’s hard knowing what to say at times. As a woman of color I know the sting of derogatory slurs. I figure when my sons are able to tell me which they prefer, I’ll settle on a term for them.

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  21. I’ve read through many posts like this and they honestly make me even more confused over the semantics. It can take years to get to a diagnosis, as it did for my daughter. I’ve submerged myself in learning to help her and raise awareness. One of the most frustrating things has been the semantics and being told how to refer to my daughter when talking with someone. I’ve said both “special needs” and referred to her as my “child with disabilities” I have a hard time with “disabled” because I believe she has “abilities” and the “dis” has a negative connotation. I agree with Tiffany that it’s hard knowing what to say at times.

  22. Sandarine (Gloria) Lashley Reply

    I absolutely hate the term (special needs) I thought it was only me, I have told my so called normal friends and family how I feel and they just don’t see my point. I am so happy that I have come across your page, because now I know that I am not the only one that hate those words. I have cerebral palsy and I am a person with different needs, that’s what I believe.

  23. I hate the term Special Needs too. I am Mum to a child with Angelman Syndrome and also am a teacher/SENCo. Do I am a Special Educational Needs Coordinator and my area of responsibility at work is the Special Needs Departmetn. Can’t stand the term at work or at home. I prefer additional needs. When talking to people I describe my son as having complex needs and talk about students at work as having additional needs.

  24. To me its a matter of the desire that a person has for a “label”. During the past two decades I engaged in providing instructional services to folks of many diagnosed/dibilitating physical and cognitive situations …. on the snow, on skis/snoboards etc. The goal…mobility , fun, physical activity. The result … much, much more! Tears may have frozen in our environment but the incredible inner warmth generated by everyone all but turned them into cloud vapors.
    To succeed with each person we undertook to provide/development a crew fully trained at International Levels in the physical, emotional, cognitive techniques through which to provide “mobility”. In all relationships we engaged in respect for the person, we evaluated, queried, observed and re-did it to finesse the “best fit”. Once upon a time we were known as the “Disabled Ski Society” .. for 25 years that is. We changed it to “Adaptive Snowsports” ….because someone showed up not wanting to ski but snowboard! AND at the time the emergence of experience, education, new techniques, awesome “adaptive equipment” and more….. well “Adaptive” just made sense.
    Clarity in communication in whatever form is critical between folks ….. political correctness is not always very well thought out and often over-reaction by “well-meaning” policy makers. To this day the result from one-on-one teaching relationships considers most of all a discreet thorough evaluation and respect for the students’ revealed abilities…. we teach “adaptively” to balance the rest!
    Hopefully this perspective doesn’t irritate anyone, our efforts over the past four decades in North America are being deeply engaged in support of all our returning military services as they reintegrate into daily life often suffering from PTSD, Physical and Emotional injuries. Emphasize Ability!!

  25. love this my needs are not “special” I just wanted to be accepted and treated like everyone else and be included where I best fit in no different from anyone else.

    • – my computer cut my reply off that was writing in the POV of this character who people don’t want to be friends with her because she has a disability just practicing writing in different pov’s feel free to delete

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  27. I stumbled across this while looking for something else, but I feel compelled to comment. I think the fallacy here is assuming that people who are in your groups are an adequate cross section of the population. The people responding to your query all have at least some major intersecting attitudes, or they would not be willing to participate in groups like this. For example, my oldest son is dyslexic and dysgraphic. It has never crossed his mind or mine that anyone would consider him even “special needs”, yet alone “disabled”. So we would not have joined groups on the topic, and I promise you we would be very offended by any kind of label other than “dyslexic”. Likewise, my friends with autistic kids would be very very angry if anyone labeled their kids as “disabled”. The same goes for my paralyzed friend and my friends with Asperger’s. None of these people belong to online social groups that focus on their differences. Finally, there is nothing new about the term “disabled”. It was used interchangeably with “handicapped” in the past. So…while I support everyone’s ability to have an opinion and control the dialogue surrounding their personal situation, remember that it isn’t representative of the entire population.

    • … and I think you should remember that WE should be controlling the narrative surrounding our stories as well as the language which we use with ourselves, NOT our parents. You are using examples here of parents being offended – parents don’t have the right, frankly, unless they themselves have a disability.

      I know that I grew up with my parents adamantly telling me I didn’t have a disability, and I totally went that route for some 30 years. I only “came out” when I was 30. So your kids can agree right along with whatever you say or how you tell them they should talk about themselves, until they reach a point where there is a shift. It does not happen to everyone. But it does happen to a great many in the cross-disability community.

      • Your comment about “coming out” struck a chord in me. My younger brother has cerebral palsy. Growing up my parents told him he didn’t have a disability, no, just because he had cerebral palsy he was still just like everyone else just like “normal.” I understand what my parents intended, but the word “disability” was basically avoided in the household. This ultimately led my brother for many years not to address his disability at all, and he would insist to do things just like “normal” – and fail – because he actually needs to do things in a different way. Only as an adult did he finally “come out” and really address it, and yes, he says he is disabled.

        I know parents love their children and the denial or fear of saying their kid is disabled comes from a good place – mine wanted to protect their son from the pain of negative stigmas or feeling like they didn’t belong. But it also resulted in some unintended consequences.

        • thank you for your comment – I agree with you. There are different reasons why parents do it, and usually all are with positive intentions. But they do have unintended results. How is your brother now?

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  29. I’m a marketer working with a client whose focus is to help families with children with learning disabilities navigate the educational system. I came across this article/blog since I was looking for a singular, concise term that could cover the entire range of learning “challenges”. Reading through this blog and the comments, it’s become clear to me that there is a real need for the creation of a standard term that has the breadth to cover the myriad of possible diagnoses without overflowing into over-generalized and unrelated categories that the word “disability” can connotate.

    Perhaps the birth of a new acronym ( like LGBTQ ) can provide an overarching, and more correct, solution. As it stands, all words already established in the English vernacular carry pre-conceived notions that are based on personal experience, cultural shifts, and social constructs. An entirely new term allows the creator to define the meaning while reusing old ones are defined by each individual – and therefore impossible to ensure being non-offensive.

    • Oh yes. We very much need a new term, and I think that’s a great idea, of going for an acronym type of thing.

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  33. Since we are talking about language, I think it is important to say that a diagnosis does not necessarily mean a person has a disability. For adults that requires that they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) for longer than 12 months. For children that requires a medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that causes marked and severe functional limitations for longer than 12 months. (SOURCE: https://www.ssa.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/general-info.htm) One can have a diagnosis but minimal impairment (and therefore not disabled.
    I agree with your main point in the article that we should be more comfortable talking and accepting disability. Before having a child, I remember being offended that I maternity leave was called disability leave, but once I experienced that physical trauma that my body went through with a very normal delivery I agreed that disability leave was needed and grateful to have it.

    • “a diagnosis does not necessarily mean a person has a disability” – YES! thank you for this comment

  34. I’ve been conveying this for years and yet here we are debating terms of the likes of “Special Needs.” FFS! Topics like these do more harm than good and dilute the argument of political correctness of the population of those with disabilities.

    You wouldn’t tell someone, “hey, you’re ambulating at a faster rate of speed than I am.” Rather, you would say something along the lines, “hey, slow down, you’re walking to fast.” A crude example, however, gets my point across, I hope.

    Those of us that fall under the category of “disabled.” Have a disability or multiple disabilities, period! It can be a visual, hearing, speech, mobility, cognisant, physical, etc. These are Disabilities and are and should be recognized by now by the majority!

    “Ignorance is a curable Disability.” -Daniel Ruiz

  35. Enjoyed reading this. I normally prefer disabled myself, but don’t mind “special needs” with people I’m familiar with (key distinction) as what I have does in fact require assistance that an inherently ableist society has trained people to not recognize as valid. It being “special” in this context isn’t viewed as bad to me. It’s forcing them to acknowledge that yes, I do in fact need them to listen and not mishandle me if I have a seizure or pay attention to signs I’ve alerted them about re: any other behaviors regarding other illnesses I have. But of course, that’s how I interpret it and it’s heavily personal, not something I’d force on others in our community.

  36. While I agree that each individual has the right to decide how they identify, not everyone seeks attention for their diversities. We all learn and function differently, but we are more similar than different. I have many friends who are very hurt by self proclaimed “advocates” like this woman speaking for them and are very hurt by being labeled, grouped and having their first impression be focused on what is perceived as “wrong with them” or their “disability”. We all have things we can’t do, but we don’t need others to focus on what we can’t do and tell us that we should be called “disabled”. If someone needs glasses to see or a walker to walk, or some other adaptation and we follow this woman’s advice assuming that they want to be called “disabled”, do not be surprised if you are not well received. Yes, not being able to see without glasses is a “disability”. How many of us would be called disabled for that alone? Everyone has disabilities, it’s a vast spectrum. If there were no glasses to adapt to an optical “disability”, how many people would be considered disabled? If you wear glasses, do you want to be called “disabled”? For the last 20+ years, in my profession of direct support, I have heard directly from hundreds of people, how they prefer to identify. Most like to use their names or traits they are proud of. Some people are used to being labeled by their diagnoses and don’t know another way, while others are absolutely traumatized by the narrow mindedness of parents, teachers or others who speak for them. Despite good intentions, not all results are actually in everyone’s best interest. Often someone reports feeling disrespected and acts out because of it… and the “disability” is blamed for the behavior. Often the behavior is a response to frustration of being treated as “disabled” or different. Some diagnoses are necessary to learn about, for safety reasons, need for adaptations or different learning styles. Some people are misdiagnosed and unnecessarily labeled and the labels hurt them. I used to take kids out for activities and am adult would walk up to me, with a person, bluntly ask “what’s wrong with them?” or “what’s his/her disability, out of curiosity, and this resulted in hurt feelings more often than not. Knowing someone’s label does not equate education. I have even been asked to “prove” a child’s disability when parking in a handicapped spot. I would suggest to the person that they call the police, rather than owe someone an explanation and share the person’s vulnerabilities in such a way. Usually the person questioning would claim that they had “real” disabilities so they were advocating for “the disabled” in their minds.
    This article doesn’t even use people first language, “disabled people”, “disabled community”, that is not much better than the “r” word. This article feels like more of a disservice than a service. Why don’t we introduce people by their names, their strengths? People with cancer aren’t referred to as the cancered community or cancered people. Just because a challenge is chronic, it doesn’t make it okay to lump people together and assume. People can only understand the neurodiversities that they have personally experienced and can only speak for themselves. This woman is biased to her experience and speaking for others who may not agree or be able to speak for themselves. Her diagnoses and her daughter’s are not credentials equating the entitlement to make decisions for people. Her daughter may grow to act out because of her mother’s attitude. Labeling people may be her preference, but totally against unity consciousness and inclusion.
    If you must, once you get to know someone, ask someone how they choose to identify, if they cannot speak for themselves, do not speak for them and assume they would agree with this woman’s limited opinion. In 20+ years, I have found such labels unnecessary unless requesting specific adaptations. When possible, people would be empowered to ask for the adaptations themselves. The people being spoken for in this article are some the strongest souls, with incredible wisdom, they deserve our great respect with positive focus.

    • Who do you think wrote this article?! I mean, really. You are sitting way over there, not even really reading it, are you? This was BY and FOR those of us with disabilities.

    • If all of us have disabilities, none of us have disabilities. And, when accommodations are needed, where does this leave us? I have a severe unilateral hearing loss, tinnitus, and recruitment. On really bad days, I have inner ear pain and vertigo. Am I disabled by this? Yes. And some days are worse than others. I think the word “disability” is a very useful word, especially if it is used accurately, and help results from it. The help can come in many forms. For instance, when called to jury duty, I was offered a speech amplifier. Help. It’s what it’s about for me.

  37. Pingback: 3 Reasons to Say “Disability” Instead of “Special Needs” – Changing Perspectives

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  39. There is a 4th reason to use disabled. It has to do with establishing a unifying identity particularly for those involved with fighting for the rights of the disabled. Personally I don’t care what educators, medical professionals, parents or anyone else without a disability prefers. Nor am I overly concerned with what people who settle for a second class existence for themselves or their children. There’s an old saying within the disabled rights movement, “nothing about us without us”, keep that in mind when making decisions for your children when those decisions will follow them for the rest of their lives..

    • BOOM!! You say that so very eloquently, and I could not agree with you more. Thank you!

  40. Couldn’t tell if my previous comment got through. Briefly, a word is needed to unify a group of people for the purpose of fighting for their human rights and to effect changes, the word chosen is disability. It goes back to the old saying, “nothing about us without us”. The “us” needs to be defined simply. Labels invented by non disabled people, as well as those used by those who have not accepted that they are disabled, are divisive and not helpful.

  41. Recently disabled and forcibly retired by my employer due to a workplace injury, I have advocated for my Learning Disabled daughter to receive school services through the DOE since 1st grade — with varying degrees of success. This can be a deadly game of delay & denial, frequently heightening stress and anxiety thus exacerbating symptoms.

    Meriah’s forum keeps a dialogue open, so people remain aware of unresolved issues. It is not useful if it becomes a forum for shaming.

    The Entire population receives services thru government agencies. Think buses. I worked withCIDNY in 1980 to advocate for accessible transportation. All people are entitled to public transportation yet It seemed hopeless at times. Persistence prevailed and every time I get on a bus it confirms my belief in activism.

  42. You keep saying that someone shouldn’t tell another person what to call themselves, but you insist that certain things are disabilities—I had IEPs, have ongoing chronic health problems, and struggle with mental illness, but I don’t want to be called disabled! Let’s be honest, when the word disabled was coined, the ‘dis’ in front of the ‘abled’ was meant to convey the meaning of ‘lack of, not’, which is the primary meaning of the root ‘dis’, and that’s how people experience it! It does not simply mean ‘Another Way of Doing and Being’, as you said. While that is more positive, it’s just not how the word was originally defined or how it is used in a widespread fashion. I think you should be open to the possibility that not everyone
    In addition, I think a parent of a disabled person coming on here and giving a rationale for the use of a different term in terms of their child is not the same as a white person telling someone who’s African American to call themselves “negro” at all. In the first situation, the parent has direct experience with the person, and offers a substantive argument. I think this comparison is unfair and inflammatory—it’s totally possible to give these people, who seem to be well-meaning parents, thoughtful and informative responses from your point of view without resorting to saying they’re equal to racial bigots.

  43. I apologize, I realized I cut off mid-sentence in my first comment. I meant to finish: “I think you should be open to the possibility that not everyone with certain conditions/needs is okay with the term ‘disabled’, especially considering that ‘disabled’ IS widely interpreted as ‘not-able’, however we might want that to change.”

    • I absolutely agree with you in that people should call themselves whatever they want! A-MEN to that. I have a friend who does have multiple disabilities and hates being called disabled, so she goes with “special needs” – that’s her choice.

      What I object to is when non-disabled people either tell us what to call ourselves – or when they correct us in what we choose to call ourselves (unbelievable! but it happens!)

      I don’t think the word “disability” is accurate or awesome. It just seems to be the only one that is not patronizing, infantizing and/or the only one that people across the disability spectrum can kind-of, sort-of, sometimes agree on. That’s why I roll with it – it’s the best of all the options at this point in time. But I really look forward to saying something else.

      Thanks for your comments; I really appreciate them and being able to talk about this.

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