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Let's Talk "Special Needs"

Article Reprint From Spork
April 19, 2021

As I am currently in Israel visiting with 2 of my children, their spouses and my 8 grandchildren (my youngest son started graduate school this week and could not join us), I’ve decided to reprint an old article I wrote. I re-read it to make sure my thoughts then are still my thoughts now -and they are!!!

I hate the term “special needs.” There, I said it. I know that statement is going to raise the ire of some people, but I have good reasons for my antipathy.

Let’s start with the term “special.” When I looked up the word “special” in the dictionary, the definitions were “better,” “greater,” or “otherwise different from what is considered usual.” Does that mean that the term “special needs” refers to needs that are better? Probably not. Needs that are “greater?” Quite possibly. Needs that are “otherwise different from usual”? Also, quite possibly and most likely.

Here is a little perspective: There are those who postulate that the euphemism “special needs” morphed from the term “special Olympics,” which was established in the 1960’s and from the concept of “special education,” which was also established in the 1960’s. At some point, people with disabilities began to be referred to as “special,” having “special needs.” We became a “special needs population.”

However, special needs is not a legal term. In nearly a thousand pages of American law, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and 2014, the term special needs occurs only a dozen or so times. And never once are children with disabilities or adults with disabilities referred to as children with special needs or adults with special needs. Rather, individuals with disabilities are always referred to in American law as simply, individuals with disabilities.

I think the term “special needs” is condescending and sets us apart rather than including us. I don’t actually get it. Why are my needs “special”? Why aren’t the things I need to function considered just human needs—what everyone—able bodied and disabled alike—must have in order to live a full life?

Okay, there are some things that disabled people need that others do not: For example, I need web sites to be accessible. I need a screen reading program for my computer that makes my computer useable for me. My deaf friend needs a sign language interpreter to participate in the hearing world. My friend who has a spinal cord injury needs ramps to get into a building with stairs and wider doors to accommodate a wheelchair.

But are these needs “special”? Or are they just unique to an individual’s circumstance? And doesn’t everyone have needs unique to his or her individual circumstance?

Am I “special” myself? I dare say I am not. I am just a plain old, regular, average woman who is blind.

In an era where we talk about inclusion, the term “special needs” feels less than inclusive to me.

“Special needs” seems, at least to me, to set us apart in a way that the term “disability” does not. “Special needs” seems to conjure up more associations specific to developmental disabilities. The term “disability” is broader and includes a range of cognitive and physical differences. “Special needs” seems euphemistic because it is so imprecise and connotes separateness: The person with “special needs” seems to need to be afforded “special” rights, not just the human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. How can people with disabilities declare our independence when others need a euphemism to refer to us? The term “special needs” has become, for me, a dysphemism.

But why do we need a euphemism when speaking about disability at all? A euphemism is a word designed to replace a harsh or blunt word. Is that meant to soften the harshness for the person saying the word or the person to whom the word is referring? If it is meant to blunt the harshness—the reality—for me that I am disabled, stop right there. I don’t want to be referred to in euphemistic terms. I’m blind. I know it and you know it. And I’m fine with it. In fact, I am a damn proud blind woman. I think I have a lot in my life to be proud of.

If the person referring to me feels the need to use a euphemism, my message to him or her is get over it! I don’t need protection from the reality of who I am. I am blind. My nephew has intellectual disabilities, and my friend’s son is autistic. End of story. Let’s use these words. If we use euphemisms, we imply there is something shameful about our disabilities.

And make no mistake, there is not!

Euphemisms are patronizing and condescending, and completely unnecessary. Let’s use real, honest language: I am a blind woman. I require accommodations. I am a member of the disabled community. I work to support the inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities they are also members of the disabled community, . My friend who is spinal cord injured is disabled; he also requires accommodation and he is also part of the disabled community. Use these words! They have real meaning.

We are not special. Our needs are not special. Our demographic is not the “special needs” population and there is most certainly nothing shameful about us. I am not a person with “special needs.” I am blind. I have a disability.

If we truly want to live in a society that values inclusivity, we need to be able to call us what we are: we are disabled individuals who require some accommodations to acquire the same civil rights and dignity as everyone else.

This is what everyone in society wants: to be accepted, to belong, to lead meaningful and purposeful lives, whatever that looks like to the individual. We, the disabled, can’t achieve that as long as society feels the need to disempower and stigmatize us by saying we have “special needs.” The truth is we don’t.I have different needs,; I have different needs from other people who are blind, I have different needs from sighted people, and I have different needs from people with other disabilities.

Our needs are not “special, they are human needs.

Like everyone else.

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