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I am an adult with a disability. I have a child with a disability (different from my own). And I am a professional educator.

I have come to loathe the term “special needs”. I feel like it’s a watered-down euphemism for “disability”, originating in the educational sphere and has since been misused all over the place.

“Special needs” does not equal “disability” (my post on that is here). Plenty of people with special needs do not have a disability and plenty of people with a disability do not have special needs.

So I wish people would just say “disability” when that’s what they are talking about and quit saying ‘special needs’ to describe something that is, in fact, a disability.

 A big problem of course is the word “disability”.

Frankly (harshly?) speaking, it’s just a pretty meaningless word that only indicates a particular way of seeing, hearing, moving, feeling, thinking or being in the world. People get bent out of shape with the “ability” part of it – and I understand, but for lack of a better word, it’s the one we are working with.

The thing that most people do not understand, however, is that the word “disability” actually covers a spectrum. As my friend Eli said, the autistics got it right when they called it a “spectrum” – and it would be great if we could do the same in the disability community. Because that’s really what we have: a disability spectrum.

We’ve got people who have a particular way of seeing (- the blind, low vision), hearing (d/Deaf, auditory processing disorders), feeling/thinking (- mental, intellectual and developmental disabilities), moving (- people who use prosthetics and wheelchairs), being (being who have chronic illnesses) and so forth. We have an entire spectrum of disability, it is as far as a one-size-fits-all experience as you can get.

But we’re no more a community of people with “special needs” than anyone else in the world is.

That is to say, we have “special needs” like every human being does, no more or less. It’s not the particular and unique needs that we have as humans that will fit us into the disability spectrum; no – it’s the way we see, hear, feel, think, perceive or move that will.

I have to see and do in order to learn. That qualifies as my learning style. I am deaf and I have PTSD and brain injury – that qualifies as my disability. But it’s not a “special need”.

://end rant

For a more in-depth post: 3 Reasons to Say “Disability” Instead of “Special Needs”

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  1. I think the SUPPORT is ‘specialised’ You wouldn’t want amateurs helping would you.

    1. absolutely. But people use it in a range far wider than that (- and I have NO ISSUE for “special needs” used for specialized support).

  2. I have the same feeling whenever I hear the word “special needs”. But I cringe even more when people tell me I’m special that’s why I’m most suitable as a mom to my child who has DS. Hate that phrase a lot!

  3. Carmen Welch says:

    Words matter. I get it!

  4. Hi, I just recently found your website and I have loved what I’ve seen! You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I would love to ask you a few questions. First, I work at a summer day camp for kids with disabilities, representing a diverse spectrum of abilities, which includes ages 5 to 21. To make the camp as individualized as possible, each ‘camper’ (a child with disabilities) is paired with a ‘counselor’ (a volunteer high school/college student). We go to fun places including boomers, the zoo, the beach, bowling, the circus, and chuck e cheese. The special part about this camp is the relationships formed between the counselors and campers, and staff puts a lot of effort into creating the pairs with this friendship in mind. My job was specifically created to keep the rest of staff current on events, language, conversations, and new information in the disabled community, as well as help with training for our counselors in language and behavior to best serve our campers. I try to keep myself educated on many fronts, including reading blogs like yours! My first question is about training our counselors to use person first language. I know many in the autistic community prefer “autistic child” to “child with autism”, while there are others who say placing the disability retains the emphasis on the person. What is your opinion on person first language? I also teach the idea of the ability (or disability) spectrum. Would you recommend I continue teaching the word disability as the way to refer to the community of children we serve, as long as I also teach the true meaning behind it? Lastly, reading this particular article made me think: our camp is called “Special Camp for Special Kids”. I understand the word special can be a euphemism, and I would never want the name of our camp to reflect something that our families do not agree with. When I think of the name, it reminds me of a truly special community based on friendship, family, and love. However, this name has been in place for a long time, and I think it’s especially important to challenge things we are comfortable with. Do you think this name reflects poorly on our organization? Thank you so much and I look forward to reading your future posts!

    1. As a teacher, I’ve always loved pairing kids in learning environments so they can help each other develop different skill sets. I love that your camp does that.

      The name. Oh my. I have to be honest: I’d run from it. I think the word “special” has evolved into just another way to say “retarded” or “intellectual disability” and that those that are categorized as “special” don’t enjoy it. I know I did not enjoy “special kids for special parents”.

      People first language… overall, it’s good policy, but like you said, autistics like to be called autistics. And us in the d/Deaf community like to be called “deaf”. We are not “people with deafness”; we are deaf. And proud of it. A lot of people with disabilities employ the same type of terminology – they are disabled, and call themselves “disabled”. I think that as far as your camp is concerned, it’s probably best to continue with people first as a rule and make exceptions when it’s clear. Like with autistics, deaf and blind.

      thank you for stopping by, reading and for your questions. I love questions and I love that you care enough to reach out. xoxo

      1. Thank you for your reply, and I will run the possibility of changing the name by my supervisors. Thanks!

    2. Admittedly I have both a personal and academic take on this. I have cerebral palsy and am on the autism spectrum. I also have an MA in Disability Studies (if you are unfamiliar, it’s a sociological discipline similar to race studies or gender studies that looks at how disabled people fit in world). Language is important because it is generally used to classify people. You might notice it changes around disability a lot because as a group we are so stigmatized that any language no matter how good intentioned tends to get twisted into an insult eventually. This is particularly true of people with intellectual disabilities (as a group they tend to prefer people first language). Look at the eveolution of classifiers. Originally they were called idiots, morons and imbeciles. These were medical terms. They however became insults. They used to call people with DS Mongolian Idiots (this was the actual medical diagnosis). Eventually medical professionals clued in to how medical language was being used as a weapon so they changed it. They changed it to retarded. Because of the stigma on the people and not the language, that term too soon became an insult. The shift t special needs was a way to put a positive spin on things but all it really does is create a binary people who do and do not have special needs. It causes a separation and makes anyone with that label “other” than the norm. It’s also just factually false. People don’t have special needs. They just have needs. The fact that they are different doesn’t make them “special”. Labels like that just conjure up negative images in the nondisabled public. Which is why parents of disabled children and other people who work with disabled people like heroes. Spending time with disabled people becomes unimaginable and anyone who is willing to be so much as seen in close proximity to them must have some addition virtue.

      I would suggest in terms of the name of your program, that it be changed to language that does not so utterly separate the participants from everyone else. Exclusive language does not support inclusion.

      Also as a side note if your participants go up to age 21, you should not call them kids. Try participants or children and young adults

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I have been teaching the concept of the disability spectrum, rather than a binary ‘disabled, non disabled’ distinction, and I’m glad that this is growing to be more widely taught and thought about. Of course, the language is continuously evolving, and it is part of my job to keep an open mind, so I appreciate your perspective. I will be sure to stress the idea of ‘everyone has needs’ rather than ‘some people have special needs and some people are normal’, which I think can be toxic in forming the friendships so necessary in our camp. I will run the idea of changing the name by my supervisors. As a side note, my saying ‘kids’ was a slip of the tongue (or fingers?), and I am highly aware of treating all of our participants their age and giving appropriate responsibilities to both older campers and counselors. Again, thank you so much for your helpful response!

  5. flutistpride says:

    I don’t like the term “special” needs. It dismisses disability-related needs as illogical and foreign concepts when they are not foreign concepts to most people.

  6. what phases is acceptable because their are now so many now and i do recognise all the points that have been made and its time we get it right….. the concern is for some this is ok and for some it is not. Thats the nature of society but we need to communication and put it on the table… Thanks. So lets #ACTONIT… #LETSDEBATE… What is prefered?

    1. No easy answers for this question. I mean, it’s clear that many of us in the disability community loathe “special needs” – but there are some that don’t…

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