The “S” Word: Attacking and Defending “Special Needs.”

Lately when I use the term “special needs” – whether in my writing or my speech – I’ve been coming up against people who attack my use of the phrase. The arguments I encounter don’t come from a singular line of reasoning or view-point, and so replying to them requires first being very clear what the complaint is.

By Thijs Hooiveld, via Flickr

There are those who think the term has become derogatory, and there is no doubt many do use it in this derogatory sense: Someone will do something perceived as stupid and will be told they must be “special.” So people want this term replaced with another less derogatory term. The intention is nice, but the problem remains: The people who think it’s funny to compare stupid people to disabled people, will continue to do so despite the change in terminology. (Please don’t have me up about the use of the word “stupid,” I’m fully aware that’s considered problematic too.)

What you really need to address there is the bad attitude, the word-use is just symptomatic of the underlying problem. I have some sympathy for those who want to remove the word “special” because of this issue, much in the same way I have turned a highly critical eye to derogatory use of the word “retard,” but I don’t think constantly changing terminology is going to solve the problem; you’re just stuck in the same endless word-elimination game with people who still don’t understand or care. Furthermore I believe changing the term to something else instead of “special needs” ignores the reason that term is in common use in the first place, so that is my next point.

Its usage – both here in New Zealand and in many countries overseas – is used to signify the part of the population that has needs exceeding those already catered for in the standard public health and education system. It is a term that declares that the person needs and is entitled to extra supports and services, beyond those of the “average” citizen. It signifies this without declaring the reason for the needs, so it is a usefully broad term. It also signifies the need without moral judgment as to the nature of the needs; the word “special” is not inherently negative, in fact if anything it is a word historically associated with something good or exceptional. It is, if anything, a kind way to declare extra needs.

Why “special needs,” though? The word “needs” there is important for understanding why the term is still one in high use: There is a movement (for better or worse) that insists it is respectful to distinguish the person’s condition from the person them-self, in the same way that people like me get told over and over to say my son “has autism” or “with autism,” not “my autistic son.” However if you’re at all familiar with my blog and my values, you’ll already know I don’t find that line of reasoning quite as respectful or well thought-out as it may first appear; very often disability and difference can define a person and that need not be a bad thing, indeed many are proud of that part of their identity and feel no shame or lack of humanity in recognizing what a large part their disability/difference plays in their identity. I wrote an entire post on the point, so I won’t re-hash it all here. There are very many people within the disability community who feel the same as I do, and their numbers appear to be growing, despite the continued prevalence of the “person first” rhetoric. The point here though is that the term “special needs” recognises and reflects this idea that we should separate the needs of the person from the identity of the person, so you’re meant to say “my son with special needs,” not “my special-needs son,” and so on. I’m not convinced by it, but we need to recognise the point anyway to understand why the term “special needs” is still so loved by many.

What then of those who argue we need to get rid of the term “special needs” because it helps shape an education system where each child is not treated like an individual, but separated into “special needs” and “normal needs.” That is to say, an education system where there are the mainstreamed schools and the special schools, and that any integration of special students into mainstream students is somehow always going to be problematic. The typical preference for people with this concern, is that we instead talk of inclusion, a practice that benefits everyone and treats each as an individual, a system that is constantly responsive and recognises the cross-hatched continuums of needs and abilities of humanity; as compared to a sharp-dividing term like “special needs” that seems to pretend there is a defined group on one side and the “normals” on the other.

I consider this attack on the term to be aspirational: It is referring to an ideal system that currently doesn’t exist, and a perspective that doesn’t currently inform the reality of the public education system. In an ideal world, we would talk of and teach a broader notion of inclusivity, and at the micro-level of individual schools some may indeed embrace that approach. However, in terms of actual funding pools, dedicated resources, legislation, and changes made to existing classrooms, the term “special needs” remains important and relevant. I think it is important to recognise that the term “special needs” does reflect current educational realities, and that – if you like – the ongoing use and existence of the term at government and school level in turn reflects the short-comings of that education system. Changing the term doesn’t change the system, it arguably just masks the problems with the way the system is run and funded. I therefore think those who run this argument are better off acknowledging this aspiration and fighting for the change, rather than focusing on the term “special needs” as if changing it would force institutional revolution.

I’m not one to tell people not to aim high, or not to fight for change, I also openly recognise that there is more than one way to force change. What I’m saying rather is let’s not pretend that a change in term would signify that the system that required the delineating term in the first place, is somehow now transformed or corrected. Indeed, the term “inclusion” is already in wide-spread use, but again only to refer to “the inclusion of those with special needs into a ‘mainstream’ setting,” which is just a reiteration of the core complaint against arbitrary binaries of who is disabled and who isn’t. Whereby arguing for a shift to the language of inclusivity and inclusion, won’t be seen as particularly revolutionary to those already steeped in the current education system and its existing rhetoric.

What term then could or should replace it, if “special needs” must be replaced. What term can reflect concern for person-first language, truly break-free of existing paradigms, and not be turned over time into a derogatory term against the disabled? It’s a tall order, and every suggestion I have heard to replace it has inevitably bumped into one of the other arguments anyway. Words carry connotations, words get misused and abused, words that are highly respectful to one are deeply insulting to the next.

So you see, I’m not convinced that we need to or should change the term “special needs.” I think what we really want to change is attitudes towards disability, and a faulty education system. Changing a term – a word – might make us feel better about these things or momentarily hide the injustices that lead us to want a new word in the first place, but I don’t think there are strong arguments to discard it at this point. Were it to become clearly and consistently used in the same insulting way as “retard,” or come to no longer represent the way the education system is actually run, I think the arguments would be that much stronger. Until then though my own fight continues to be focused at the system and attitude level.

My son has special needs. I have a special-needs son. This causes me no shame, or humiliation, and doesn’t make him any less human to say it out loud. It’s just a factual statement about him in the world as it’s currently run, for better or worse.

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13 Responses to The “S” Word: Attacking and Defending “Special Needs.”

  1. Lydia Brown says:

    My main objection to the term “special needs” isn’t that it’s cutesy, euphemistic, or derogatory (all of which I would agree with as well) but that it centers the needs/experiences of abled people (able-bodied, neurotypical, etc.) as normal. My critique falls along the same lines as my critique of the term “differently abled,” which I object to for the same reason. (The article can be read here: “How ‘Differently Abled’ Marginalizes Disabled People.”)

    • Thanks Lydia, I’ll have a read of your article. (At first blush it appears that even that objection isn’t going to deal with the fact that the term “special needs” nevertheless does currently reflect the reality and organisation of the education system, which is set up for and run with the “non-disabled” primarily in mind, so I suspect the arguments I make in my post are still relevant: Particularly the points I made about changing terms not changing the reality we should otherwise be fighting to change, and my point about “special needs” still being a legally and system-relevant term.)

      • Lydia Brown says:

        While language is certainly not the be all, end all, and should rarely, if ever, be used as a litmus test of whether or not someone is “on the right side” so to speak, I do feel that analyzing and changing our language is important and constructive and absolutely tied up in advocacy to change systems — language is part of our reality, part of our culture, part of our policies, part of our practices, part of our laws, part of our everyday lives, part of our trauma. Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum or in some isolated intellectual sphere. I’ve written more about that in another post of mine as well, “Violence in Language: Circling Back to Linguistic Ableism.”

        When discussing the present educational system, I find it more useful and more accurate to refer to it as a segregated system — a system that reinforces ablenormativity and the exclusion of disabled people. I often say, in my own work, that disabled students are relegated to disabled-only classes or disabled-only schools, and these are educational segregation on the basis of disability. The term special needs reinforces the arguments that keep these systems operational, rather than challenging them. Its use is part of the system, neither objective nor beneficial to our actual interests.

        • I feel like you’re talking at cross-purposes to what my post is actually about, and that’s fine insofar as you have a separate argument that runs parallel to rather than directly in relation to the points I’m making.

  2. angelina258 says:

    Excellent post and very well put. I agree that changing the terminology does nothing to get at the root of the issue. And I agree 100% that calling it as it is, saying a person IS special needs (versus HAS special needs) has no shameful connotation.

  3. ambhannah says:

    Very well written – I personally prefer the person-first rhetoric but I agree that the focus needs to be on the fact that our Ministry of Education only ‘dabbles’ in disability accessibility, they have not fully owned it, implemented it, project managed it….

    • Indeed, and I should say I fully respect those who choose and prefer person-first language, because ultimately they are coming from the same position as me anyway: A place of respect, awareness and concern. Where we differ is not nearly as fundamental as where we meet, if you know what I mean. Thanks for commenting ambhannah.

  4. caelesti says:

    I think the most important thing is clear communication that respects the dignity of the person- it’s obvious to me that’s what you’re focused on. Special needs gets a concept across to people- and special needs is broader than disability- a short person needs a stool to reach a shelf, a pregnant woman may need more bathroom breaks at work, a left-handed person needs lefty tools- those are not “disabilities” per se but they are special needs.
    I empathized with arguments both for and against “person-first” language- but I think it’s a needless division in the disability and autistic rights movements. The broader disability community has spent a lot of time trying to get people to use person-first, some autistic activists are spending way too much time & energy against it. I try to respect what language individuals prefer to describe themselves.

    • Fair comment caelesti, and I think that’s an important and interesting point about how different disability communities may find themselves head-butting against each other, of course it happens within disability communities as much as between different disability communities; the autism “community” is deeply fractured and we struggle to find common ground even when we all think we’re doing what is in the best interests of autistics. Thanks very much for commenting.

  5. Lydia Brown says:

    Maybe I’m not phrasing myself well — I don’t think it’s a dichotomous choice between changing terms and changing realities. I think part of changing the reality is changing the terminology.


  7. Pingback: Special things about Special Olympics | Lainey Cohen

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