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

3 Reasons to Say "Disability" Instead of "Special Needs" - 3 short reasons to say the word "disability" instead of "special needs"
I've kept these reasons short.

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, bi-polar, with TBI and 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.

 

3 Reasons to Say "Disability" Instead of "Special Needs" - 3 short reasons to say the word "disability" instead of "special needs"

Meriah
is a deaf blogger, global nomad, tech-junkie, cat-lover, Trekkie, Celto-Teutonic-peasant-handed mom of 3 (one with Down syndrome and one gifted 2E).
She likes her coffee black and hot.
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40 Comments

  • 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’

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”)

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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. 🙂

  • 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”

  • 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.

  • 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”).

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