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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 and neurodiverse. 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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Sophia Roberts

Wednesday 6th of October 2021

I know a lot of people with disabilities who use 'special needs', 'diff-abled', 'differently-abled' etc. for a variety of reasons. I wouldn't correct them, even though I don't love the terms either. Person first language came from people with disabilities, ("I am not a wheelchair, I am a person using a wheelchair!") but then I think a couple of things happened: people starting correcting people with disabilities who did not use person first language to describe themselves, and people with disabilities started to have a newer view- that disability first is a way of being proud and embracing your full self. People with disabilities are clearly not a monolith! I just hope that people don't look down on people who do not use identity first language, or who prefer 'special needs' rather than 'disabled' to describe themselves. Part of oppression and internalized oppression is policing others and ourselves. Also, while the words are very important, if they keep us from coming together on health care or transportation, housing or stigma, that becomes problematic. That said, the conversation about how we talk and think about disability is important. I quite enjoy your thinking Meriah, and the perspectives you put out into the world.

Roger Gotch

Friday 4th of June 2021

The term 'special needs' glorifies disability. There is nothing special about being below average intelligence or physicality.

shannon s colclough

Thursday 16th of July 2020

Thank you, I was starting to think that I was going absolutely crazy for telling parents, teachers, and community leaders that using the phrase special needs is wrong.


Saturday 18th of July 2020

lol, not at at all! And I love your email address!

thomas canterbury

Monday 6th of April 2020

Hi, The mental and the physical "disorder," community's seem so uninterested in each other's needs!

Tom Canterbury / diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at 39 years old and anxiety disorder 20 years later. I know who I am, and I know what I do! Luv my pills and my shrink, and my wife , 2 boyz, and 18 years volunteering...

Dawn Robertson

Monday 10th of February 2020

I love all of the back and forth comments, suggestions, insights... but as a non-disabled person, I have a question... I agree that each individual has a right to use terminology how they see themselves.. but what a lot of us need to know is how not to offend. I work for an organization that provides unique events solely for this community of individuals with disabilities, special needs, etc.... and since we are advertising these events, and want to make certain that the general public knows it is for this exclusive community, we need to know HOW/WHAT verbiage is appropriate? I noticed in the comments that some folks were ok with "special needs" but not "disability" and visa-versa... do we advertise using BOTH terms as to not offend? I honestly do not want to offend those we're focusing on. Thanks for help in this.


Monday 10th of February 2020

"Disability" is the correct term. "Disability" is what is in the actual law, and "disability" is what people need to actually proclaim in order to receive any type of benefits. "Special Needs" is a word that some people (especially parents of people with disabilities) might prefer, but it's not the actual, legal word that defines conditions. So if you want to be safe, using "disability" is the way to go!

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