Why we need to stop saying “Special Needs.”
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.
So here we go. Why we, as parents need to stop using the term special needs. 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 is constantly changing. I am sure that if you combed thru 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 8 years 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.
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.” You can read more of her thoughts in “My Daughter doesn’t have Special Needs. She’s disabled.”
8 Reasons to Say Disability instead of Special Needs
- 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 “We can’t keep using “special needs” – we need to listen to disability advocates now.”
- 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. Great thoughts from Erin Human.
- My son’s needs are not special. He needs to communicate and to eat, go to school, get a job, have friends and leisure activities. Are those needs any different from you or me? 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 a 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.”
- 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 the 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. As it should.
Take a look:
- What parents need to know about their Disabled Kids and Assumed Consent.
- 8 Quotes that will have you rethink People First Language
- What every parent needs to know about Social Capital.
- Ableism: Why some autism moms need to stop doing this.
- Autism Awareness Materials that are actually ableist.
Be ready for your IEP meeting!