Update: A new version of this post is available on my main blog.
This piece speaks to my experience as a neurodivergent father with neurodivergent kids. “Special” is non-inclusive, discriminatory language. It is a deficit and medical model euphemism. Use instead the language of neurodiversity & the social model of disability. Use the language of diversity & inclusion, design for real life, and universal design. These are a human rights and human collaboration framework that will accelerate industry, education, and society. Segregation never works. Time now for inclusion. Disability is an engine for innovation. Say the word, and design for real life, together.
Although human diversity, the social model of disability and inclusion as human rights framework concepts are developing traction, for much of society the “special story” still goes like this:
A child with “special needs” catches the “special bus” to receive “special assistance” in a “special school” from “special education teachers” to prepare them for a “special” future living in a “special home” and working in a “special workshop”.
Does that sound “special” to you?
The word “special” is used to sugar-coat segregation and societal exclusion – and its continued use in our language, education systems, media etc serves to maintain those increasingly antiquated “special” concepts that line the path to a life of exclusion and low expectations.
The logic of the connection between “special needs” and “special segregated places” is very strong – it doesn’t need reinforcement – it needs to be broken.
Further, the “special needs” label sets up the medical “care” model to disability rather than the social inclusion model of disability. It narrows and medicalises society’s response to the person by suggesting that the focus should be on “treating” their “special needs”, rather than on the person’s environment responding to and accommodating the person – including them for the individual that they are.
There is another insidious but serious consequence of being labelled (as having or being) “special needs”. The label carries with it the implication that a person with “special needs” can only have their needs met by “special” help or “specially-trained” people – by “specialists”. That implication is particularly powerful and damaging in our mainstream schooling systems – it is a barrier to mainstream schools, administrators and teachers feeling responsible, empowered or skilled to embrace and practice inclusive education in regular classrooms, and accordingly perpetuates attitudinal resistance to realising the human right to inclusive education under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In other words, the language of “special needs” leads to, and serves to excuse, a “can’t do” attitude as the default position of many general educators – it effectively deprives inclusive education of its necessary oxygen – a conducive “can do” classroom culture.
The label of “special needs” is inconsistent with recognition of disability as part of human diversity. In that social framework, none of us are “special” as we are all equal siblings in the diverse family of humanity.
It is also to acknowledge and discuss the fact that the disability rights movement has been having conversations about language and disability terminology for decades, and that many nondisabled people are (perhaps willfully) unaware of these conversations. They come up with complex and tormented euphemisms to talk about disability instead of just asking a disabled person if there’s an appropriate term. Many nondisabled people are shocked that many people with disabilities, including myself, view ‘special’ as a rank insult that is horrifying to encounter. This word makes me so angry. So angry.
Thus, when I say ”special’ troubles me,’ I mean ‘please do not use this term to refer to me, because I find it personally insulting, and I have an identity, that identity is disabled, please respect my identity by using the word I self identify with to refer to me’ and I also mean ‘I would vastly prefer that you consider not using it as a default/general term, but use it for self identification if you identify with it, and to describe other people who self identify with it.’ And, in return, if I know that someone identifies as special needs or with any other term involving ‘special,’ I will refer to that person that way, because I believe that respecting self identification is a critical thing. However, I note that I don’t personally know anyone who identifies with this term; I see it being used by nondisabled friends and family, applied as a label by others and not claimed as a self identification.
So, here’s what I, personally, don’t like about special: I feel like it’s an isolating word. I feel that the concept of ‘special’ stands in the way of full integration into society, and it also perpetuates some very harmful myths. It sets people with disabilities aside and stresses that they are different and alien. That using a wheelchair, for example, is ‘special’ and different and weird.
This word, to me, stresses a hierarchy of normality. And, thanks to the way that it has become twisted, it has become a singularly loaded word. Everything from ramps to quiet rooms for taking exams is considered ‘special treatment’ and sneered at. Nondisabled people think that we are pulling off some kind of giant scam here and that’s reinforced when we talk about, for example, ‘special education.’
The very idea that accommodations are ‘special’ stresses that they should not be expected. That they are a prize or treat. That you don’t deserve them. I want to see accommodations normalised. I want to see it assumed that everyone who wants to participate in something is able to do so, that no barriers are presented by other participants or the venue. I don’t want that to be ‘special.’ I want it to be ordinary.
Likewise, the idea of referring to human beings as ‘special’ is one I find troubling, not least because this term has become weaponised. I have trouble parsing whether it is being used as a celebration of identity or an insult whenever I encounter it.
The “special needs” language falls into normativity. There’s a “normal” and a “right” way to do things, and that way is how able people do it. If you don’t do it that way, suddenly it’s “special” because it’s different and scary.
“Special needs” is part of this dichotomy which is used to split able and disabled. Indeed, to alienate disability. Disability is different and “special” and hard and weird. “Special” is an isolating word, in fact, because it sets people apart, and not necessarily in a good way, no matter what the original meaning of the word is.
Think “special bus” or “special education,” both of which are used to isolate developmentally disabled folks from their peers, often under the argument that they are “hard to control” or “disruptive” or “upsetting” or, sometimes, just “gross.” People use “special” to push these folks away, to isolate them somewhere where they cannot bother the nice able people.
It’s one of the many euphemisms for disability which is used to create a veil of obscurity. Disability as Other. Indeed, “special needs,” a term which people often use because they are fumbling for something else to use, looking for the “right” way to say it, is intensely othering.
For one night, the special needs community will shine! And then the day after, they will go back to being ignored by much of their communities.
Here’s the real problem for me – why put this money behind isolated, segregated, events? I know Tebow et al. think they are doing good here, and I’m sure the people who go will have a good time. But it accomplishes nothing other than a brief moment of fake normality.
“Prom” didn’t matter to me, but to many people prom = normal highschool experience. So if people with disabilities are being excluded from such activities, if that’s something they want, then the solution is to put time and money behind making such events more inclusive and more accessible.
A segregated special event for special needs, no matter how well intentions, just reinforces the idea that people with disabilities cannot function in “normal” society.
There’s a social media campaign going on right now to #SayTheWord – it was started by Lawrence Carter-Long, the Public Affairs Manager for the National Council on Disability, and is an active Twitter hashtag. The word, of course, is disabled.
The importance of this campaign is driven home to me over and over again as I see people performing ludicrous and painful contortions to avoid saying it. Reminder that when I make a criticism the way well-meaning people interact with disability, I am not attacking the people (parenthetical reminder that I was immersed in ableism myself not long ago), but inviting people to think about things in a different way.
Instead of saying disabled, nice people say things like:
- differently abled
- handicapable (yes, really)
- physically/mentally challenged
- special needs
It’s that last one, special needs, that I really want to take aim at, because I believe that seemingly innocuous phrase does serious damage to disability rights.
Every time someone says “special needs,” they reinforce the false notion that disabled people are asking for “extras” when we require accommodations, modifications, and/or support to access the same things that non-disabled people are able to access, such as education, public spaces, community involvement, and so on.
That’s the first problem, because access is not “special” for disabled people. It’s our right. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects disabled Americans from discrimination, requires us to be accommodated in the workplace, and grants us equal access to public spaces and institutions. Other countries have laws in place to protect disability rights in similar ways.
The second problem is, the phrase “special needs” flies in the face of the social model of disability. The social model says, the disabled person’s inability to access things is due not to the disabled person’s failings, flaws, or deficits, but on the environment’s failure to provide access to the things. For example, a Blind person is not disabled because they can’t see, they are disabled because the world was set up by seeing people for seeing people and is made of many things that are inaccessible to non-seeing people.
Source: #SayTheWord, Not “Special Needs”
My son, who has Down syndrome, is 10. By the time he was 3 (thanks in part to spending his first few years reading everything I could get my hands on), it was pretty clear to me that while he had particular needs, they weren’t all that special. He needs an education, safe housing, independence, meaningful community, health care, and basically all the other stuff that everyone else needs. Our means to get him there might vary and require specific techniques, tools, and resources, but it’s not because his needs are so “special.”
Moreover, as a euphemism, “special” has become its own brand of insult. Anecdotally, I increasingly see people substituting the word where they might have used the word “retard,” because ableism can always survive the shifting of norms. “Special,” appended before “snowflake,” was the “defining insult” of 2016, according to The Guardian. “Special” connotes both undesirably different and unjustly self-centered.
In fact, there’s a broad cross-disability movement dedicated to working against euphemisms like “special needs” or “differently-abled.” While the origins of the expression “special needs” are complicated and debated, Rebecca Cokley, executive director of the National Council on Disability, explained to me that it’s clear “the term was never chosen by our community; it was chosen by educators, family members, and other professionals who felt uncomfortable by the use of the term ‘disability.’”
It’s not just about law, either. Lawrence Carter-Long launched the #SayTheWord campaign in 2016 to get people to use “disability” or “disabled” rather than dodging the issue. He told me that in the past, “Disability was only a diagnosis, but it now equals identity, it equals community, it equals history, it equals constituency. So part of saying the word is the recognition of the evolution of what the word has become.” He’s equally opposed to special needs, as a concept, because, “A need isn’t special, if other people get to take the same thing for granted.”
The #NotSpecialNeeds video doesn’t say the word disability, but I don’t know that it needs to do so. It’s an impressive piece of work, chipping away at the euphemism “special needs” with hilarity, positing scenarios that would qualify as special, like needing massages from cats or celebrities to conduct wake-up calls (the latter scene features John C. McGinley, the actor from Scrubs, whose son has Down syndrome).