special needs


Special Needs and Disability

I’ve got to admit that when I joined the “special needs” community 8 years 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?

dis-a-bled: [dis-ey-buh-ld] 

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:

Special Needs: 

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.

Read more about disability and the disability rights movement!

You all know how much I loathe the way people use the term “special needs” interchangeably with “disability”(my post about that is here ).

The term was originally an educational one, designed for kids with extremely unique learning needs. Plenty of people who have real educational “special needs” do not have a disability and plenty of people with disabilities do not have special needs within the classroom.

No one brings this home more for me than Micah and Moxie

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Moxie has Down syndrome. She’s the one that people are talking about when they use “special needs” interchangeably with “disability”. But she has few needs that are “special”. She simply learns in a highly visual, experiential way. She needs things to be practical and applicable.

And Moxie has a lot going for her. She’s very cute. She is charming. She has a way with people – when she wants people to pay attention to her, say “hi” or acknowledge her presence, she knows how to get it in a friendly and positive way.

Moxie makes people like her.

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It’s like she grabs the world by the collar and brings it down to her eye-level and smiles with her shy dimple spouting and says, ‘love me!” And it does.

It does.

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Micah, on the other hand, taught himself to read by the time he was 4. At 6, he has the vocabulary of many educated adults. He’s cute. He can be charming too, but he often struggles hard when trying to connect with new people.

It’s not Asperger’s or Autism – it’s just a type of awkwardness that I actually remember well from my own childhood (only I was never as smart as Micah is).

But it’s hard and it’s deep and it’s very difficult for him.

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He’s an intense kid, highly social. He loves other kids, always has, and yet can’t seem to say or do the right thing to win over the kids’ whose friendship he desires. He’s too rough on the playground or too bossy. It seems like it’s always “too” something. I don’t understand it – he’s not like that at home.

And academically, what do you do with a 6 year old with a junior-high school reading level? Who has a math level of a more typical first grader, who dreams about things like bio-neural engineering and adores Nova specials?

Let’s talk special needs. He’s got special needs.

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All kids have special needs, make no mistake about that, but academically speaking, some kids do need more tweaked in their learning environment than others do. Micah’s needs are unquestionably special to me in that they require more tailoring than most kids.

Micah’s that kid. He does not have a disability but he has special needs.

And Moxie has a disability but does not have needs that are terribly different from other kids



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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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