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

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

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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.


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.



Links to Other Great Posts About Using the Word “Disability”

How “Differently Abled” Marginalizes Disabled People by Autistic Hoya

4 Disability Euphanisms That Need to Bite the Dust, by Emily Ladau

Euphanisms for Disability are Infantalizing, by The Crippled Scholar

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