Special Needs and Disability
I’ve got to admit that when I joined the “special needs” community a decade ago by way of giving birth to my daughter with Down syndrome, I was confused with all the “special needs” this and that. “Disability“, I was and am completely used to, both as a person with disabilities and as a professional working in the field of disability, I was used to “disability”.
But “special needs”? I wasn’t sure about it all, it really didn’t seem to make sense.
It seemed to me that the words were being used fairly interchangeably, but that most parents of kids with non-visible disabilities like Autism or with intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome, preferred the term “special needs” and used it way more than they’d use “disabled” (- if “disabled” was even used at all).
So what do they both mean anyway?
1. crippled; injured; incapacitated.
2. (used with a plural verb) persons who are crippled, injured, or incapacitated
I’m disabled – but I’m not, as dictionary.com puts it, “crippled, injured; incapacitated.”
No, in fact, I think I’m quite highly able and in full capacity of my own self.
So what do we have here? To me, we have a pretty inaccurate descriptive word that doesn’t mean a lot. It’s a word that harkens to the “medical model” of disability; that is, ” a sociopolitical model by which illness or disability, being the result of a physical condition intrinsic to the individual (it is part of that individual’s own body), may reduce the individual’s quality of life, and cause clear disadvantages to the individual.” (- see wikipedia).
It’s saying that because I can’t hear without hearing aids, because I can’t see without glasses, because I can’t mentally function without drugs or care and because my brain switches off when under stress, I’m “crippled, injured; incapacitated.”
And that would be a definition of “disabled”, of “disability”.
What then is are “special needs”? Are they any different from typical needs, or from the definition of disability/disabled?
According to dictionary.com, “special needs” are:
The special educational requirements of those with learning difficulties, emotional or behavioral problems, or physical disabilities.
So it appears that they are educational requirements.
“Special needs” is about education “disability” is about your body, your brain, your senses being wired and tapped in a unique way.
I have a hunch that it’s more than this, of course, as used by parents of kids with disabilities.
“Special needs” has a softer sound to it. Like, “my kid is NORMAL; s/he just has some needs that are singular, uncommon!” “Special needs” doesn’t sound quite as stigmatized as “disabled” does; doesn’t sound as… oh, “wheelchair bound” or “crippled“.
It’s just kind of like, ‘little Johnny is remarkable’ and not so much ‘little Johnny has constant seizures.”
I think a big problem in all of this is the cloak of doom n’ gloom that surrounds the word “disability”. We – as a society – seem to dislike the word “disability”. We just don’t dig it.
But we don’t have an actual word to replace it that works.
So people within the disabled community have gone about reclaiming the word “disabled”, taking it within the tribal sort of context, placing the social model of disability on it, and giving the medical model the bird. Cool, that works, we can do this.
Only, by keeping “special needs” on the mainstream market, by using “special needs” interchangeably with “disability”, we are weakening both, losing the value and meaning of both.
The words are not interchangeable.
Many kids without disabilities are on the special needs track in school; many people with special needs do not have a disability. Many people with a disability do not have special needs.
“disability” DOES NOT EQUAL “special needs”
And – while we are talking about it – “special needs” is just as inaccurate term as “disability” is – because who on earth does not have special needs? WE ALL DO. The word is, in and of itself, just flat out misleading, grouping together people in an educational setting and saying, “these kids need to be taught differently than everyone else” – but as a former teacher, I can tell you with conviction that EVERYONE needs to be taught differently than EVERYONE else! We all learn in unique ways; we all have needs that are special unto ourselves!
“Disability” does not need to be such a scary, unsexy, stigmatizing word. We are the ones that give words their power, after all.
If we use it, and use it well, use it often, use it in good ways, in describing ourselves, our children – all those who have a way of using their minds, senses, bodies (- and in my opinion, feelings) in a way that currently signals “impairment” – then we change the power that lies in the word. We transform it. And we have that power, you know. We can transform words.
“Disability” does not need to be a dirty word. It does not need to be something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. Rather, it holds the potential to a power to see and experience the world in a completely different way.
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Meriah Nichols is a counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one on the spectrum). Deaf, and neurodiverse herself, she’s a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.