Several months ago, I did a blog post about People First Language, and why it shouldn’t be mandated. Certainly not by non-disabled people.

At the end of that post, I said this: Up next: I’ll be tackling “special needs.” Because that vernacular is seeing a shift too. Stay tuned.  Because many people have asked me if it’s still politically correct to use the term special needs, and what to say instead.

not say special needs

So here we go. Why we, as parents should rethink using the term special needs.

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Special Needs vs. Disability

First I want to quote another parent like me, who did a similar post almost a year ago. In that post she said,

I also want to say that I’m just one person, going through my process. Everyone is somewhere different in their journey, their life. This is where I’ve come to, but if you look back through my blog, you’ll see a few years ago I was a very different person. VERY DIFFERENT.” 

Hear, hear! I couldn’t agree with her more. We are all at different points on our journey and learning and language and vernacular are constantly changing. I am sure that if you combed through every single blog post, you’ll find phrases that are ableist.

As I am trying to grow and learn about ableism, I have tried to go back and update the particularly cringe-worthy ones. But after a decade of blogging, it will take me forever to find every instance where it says “special needs” and replace it.

I also know that there are people who disagree with me, and that’s ok too.

I will always continue to call people what they prefer to be called.

For now, because I am not disabled, I am going to follow their lead, as we all should do.

What is the politically correct term for special needs?

It’s not new at all. Disabled. Disability. It’s ok to say the word.

speciall needs

Jamie Davis Smith also echoes my sentiments, which apply to this issue and the People First Language issue. And that is,

“But my daughter cannot speak, so I have no way of knowing her preferences. Instead, I’m taking cues from advocates who are disabled themselves. And what I have learned is that it is not just okay but preferable in many cases to call a disability a disability and not trying to cover it up with softer language.”

JDS via Washington Post

To be clear, I am on a very mixed journey as far as listening to advocates who are disabled themselves. Some of them, particularly a very vocal group who associates themselves with the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag, are speaking out and advocating for things that go against my son’s best interests.

That issue isn’t particularly relevant here. I mention it only to point out that sure, I agree with other groups on some issues, and disagree with them on some issues. That’s how life is.

Why say Disabled

Disabled is not a dirty word. Why are we avoiding using the word disabled? Calling my son anything else does not make him any less disabled. To take another quote from the blog post I mentioned earlier: 

Disability. It’s a word used with pride. A word reclaimed. Part of an identity. A community. In itself, it’s not a negative or a positive necessarily in terms of describing the person or experience, but something which combines with everything else to make you, YOU. It’s part of you and that part is important.

I suggest you read the entire essay. (Sorry, the link I had is no longer valid and I cannot find it)

Disability is a normal part of human diversity. Somewhere around 15-20% of the human population is disabled. Like other forms of diversity, the presence of disability in the world enriches humanity in ways that we probably can’t even imagine. Being disabled is not something to be ashamed of, and it’s not something to be scared of; it’s just a fact of life.

Erin Human

My son’s needs are not special. He needs to communicate and eat, go to school, get a job, have friends, and do leisure activities.

Are those needs any different from us? No, they’re not. How he will access them is different. But the needs themselves are not “special.”

Disabled people need to get access to community transit, theaters, restaurants, swimming pools, shopping malls, and everything else that you and I access without even thinking about it. That doesn’t make their needs special and when we set the tone that they are special needs, it minimizes their rights.

Disabled people have the right to do everything we do. And yes, by law this is their right. It’s not something special we do for them.

It makes the solutions seem like a favor. We’re not doing disabled people a favor by giving them a ramp. Because my son uses a wheelchair and because quite often we go out in public just the two of us, we often have trouble accessing doors.

Shouldn’t he have the right to enter every door that I enter, without a hassle? As Michelle Swan says in her essay My Needs are not Special,

“My needs are not special, they are just my needs, and I have the same right to have my needs met as any other person.”

Michelle Swan

Lawrence Carter-Long, who founded the movement called Disabled, Say the Word, says,

“The language we use mirrors the ways we think,” he says. “Embracing the word disabled, fighting the urge and the conditioning that demands we distance ourselves from it, is a powerful illustration of self-determination in action. It epitomizes how far the disability community has come. By deciding what we want to call ourselves, owning it, we claim our power and celebrate the history and the community advocacy that made it possible.”

Disabled people prefer this. Sure, not all of them and not all the time. Nothing is ever 100%. But just like learning about mourning (cringe) and autistic and people first language, this is where I am learning. From actual disabled people.

As Meriah Nichols puts it, 

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. 

Avoiding the word inherently implies negativity. Being disabled is not a tragedy; how society treats disabled people is a tragedy.

By coming up with all kinds of phrases and words to avoid saying disabled/disability inherently implies that those words are so negative, they just shouldn’t be said. Say “handi-capable” instead. Are you friggin kidding me? Why do we need to remind society that disabled people are capable of doing things?

It doesn’t work! Here’s one for the numbers geeks out there.

If you’re reading this, got this far and are still saying to yourself, “Words, schmords, it sounds nicer so who cares?” Here’s one for you. This doesn’t work.

Yes, people have actually studied it and found that “Special needs” is an ineffective euphemism.


It’s evolving. I’m learning. I will still make mistakes. Despite my best efforts and intentions, I still am only a parent and not a disabled person. But my guess is that within the next few years, this term will fade away.

I think what’s important is that we all acknowledge that we’re on different parts of this journey and have things to learn. I occasionally get emails from folks, and much of it is condescending and patronizing, telling me to use PFL and stuff. Some really lay into me and browbeat me over it.

To me, that is not how you educate someone.

Emily Ladau of Words I Wheel By had some very prophetic and profound thoughts on this.

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