Ableist Word Profile: Special

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language that is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

Special. Special needs. Special education. Special bus. Special treatment.

Disability euphemisms are sometimes very difficult to untangle, which is why I hesitated so long to write an Ableist Word Profile on ‘special’ even though a number of readers requested it. Euphemisms illustrate a world where good intentions and changing language norms collide, leaving some of us in an uneasy position on the sidelines. When I wrote ‘Needs Are Not Special,’ for example, some people resisted the personal opinion I laid out in the post.

And I think that resistance demonstrated some interesting conflicts in the way people think about disability as well as language. Some people find ‘special’ a safe and comfortable word, one that takes the scary disability out of the matter. Others find it patronising, cutesy, and dehumanising. Some people think it’s more friendly, making people with disabilities more approachable. Others think that it feels like an insult. Some people honestly don’t care.

Some people with disabilities really don’t like ‘special.’ Others actively identify with it and like it. And the same holds true with a lot of disability euphemisms. This makes the point about self identification above extremely important; our goal with this series in general is to think about the role of ableism in language, not to police self identification or reclamatory language use.

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.

I think that people, including earlier generations of disability rights activists, started using ‘special’ to talk about and frame disability from a place of kindness. With the goal of inclusion. To humanise disability and make it seem less frightening. Perhaps, even, to stress the need for accommodation. That was certainly the intent behind, for example, the Special Olympics. Yet, even as it was being used in this way, it was also being twisted and used in the opposite way, to insult people with disabilities. ‘Special’ became a double-edged sword: A respectful term for people with intellectual disabilities, for example, and an insult along the lines of ‘r#tarded.’ Accommodation, a basic human right, turned into ‘special treatment,’ a nuisance. A hassle. Something that isn’t really necessary.

Euphemisms are hard to talk about because of the dual nature of their use. Yes, all ableist language is used in many different ways, including coded ways, but euphemisms feel particularly tricky to me. Because I see them used as insults and as proud self identification. I see them used by people who are struggling to find the right words to say, and not wanting to cause offense. And, sometimes, their usage reflects cultural and political differences; English is spoken in a lot of countries and it’s used in a lot of ways, and a word or phrase that rings wrong to me is entirely polite and appropriate somewhere else, just as some people cannot stand the phrasing ‘people with disabilities’ that’s used here in the United States. When you enter translation between languages, things get even more entangled.

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.

What about you? Do you like or dislike ‘special’? What does this word evoke for you when you encounter it?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

22 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: Special

  1. Great job explaining all the problematic aspects of the word “special.” I hear it used a lot directed at anyone implied to be “stupid,” used as euphemism for people with mentality disabilities, which is assumed to be an insult. Really vile stuff. My mother has worked as a “special ed aide,” and I was wondering what term you would suggest to replace “special education.” The only term I can think of is “assisted education,” but that comes with its own host of problems, primarily that it might suggest to some “special treatment” that is not actually necessary.

  2. This one, to me, has always had intent at heart. I feel like when it is used to describe individuals “She’s ….special” it can be such an insult, that you can’t even figure out how to describe a person.

    But usage such as in Special Education? It makes a little more sense when it is used that way, to describe a style, and a population. I’m a former special ed aide myself (and boy, weren’t people shocked to hear I id’d as a disabled sometimes. My husband is also finishing a degree in Sp. Ed.) and that usage seems less insulting. Although, one of the more progressive schools I worked at changed the title of the department to Student Services.

    But ymmv, I think this is really one of those words that can go either way. I’ve certainly heard it as an insult, so I take it in context.

    What is interesting, is that it is one of the few words that most people can’t sputter out of and say, “well, I didn’t mean it that way!” like so many people do with the r-word. I love calling people on it when they use it as an insult.

  3. I have a mixed and rocky relationship with the term.

    I self-ID as a person with disabilites and don’t think my needs are special as much as they are in need of accommodation. I’ve encountered a lot of baggage related to the term “special,” including being used as a way to deny needed accommodations (“we can’t give you special treatment”). I’ve also heard it used about children in a way that reduces the complexity of personhood to a phrase such as “special angel,” or “heaven’s special child.” One of the best books I’ve encountered about disability for children is called “Don’t Call Me Special!”

    On the other hand, I used to teach Special Education. As a pediatrician, I work with a population of children called, by our professional organization, “Children with Special Health Care Needs.” CSHCN is defined reductively as children who have medical needs beyond those of most children, a sort of “I know it when I see it. . . ” I frequently care for children who recieve Special Education services and I infrequently but not insignifantly interact with children who participate in the Special Olympics.

    I’ve made a sort of shaky peace. I use the term when it appears in official descriptor terms (such as “I used to teach special ed”). I never say a person IS special needs. And I remember that Mr. Rogers taught me that everyone is special.

  4. This was rightfully “kept in the oven awhile longer” and meditated on. I can see why rushing this particular word profile could have harried the effectiveness of it.

    I have an intense dislike for the word “special”, and so, I would never self-identify with it. Most of this stems from the simple fact that something I have been thinking about for quite some time now has been the normalization of universal accommodations. “Special”, as it is in the present, reinforces a culture where, in the name of true critical thought, the first thing abled individuals contemplate is the practicality of and the burden placed on them from an accommodation, rather than getting it right and treating the inclusion measures as a means with people as the ends. Dehumanizing (I feel) occurs a whole hell of a lot due to fact that the people themselves are not treated as the ends, because they instead become the means (of justification) to said accommodation, which is now (along with its impact on the abled) treated as the end result. This completely overlooks the inclusion of other human beings to the ones not personally concerned with the policy/measure/feature in question, further perpetuating the dickishness toward the idea that the differently-abled are indeed peers.

    My wondering what it will take for everyone to be able to act on their own volition—regardless of the activity and their chosen capacity—without complaints or counter-rationalizations notwithstanding, I do wonder if my own aversion to “special” isn’t entirely rational. Whatever the reason, rational or not, I personally can’t abide the idea that a society which doesn’t marginalize any part of the whole would use the terminology of “special” in an idiomatic way, like this.

    I would just earnestly ask that anyone reading this try not to see me as casting ill upon anyone that would want to use this term for themselves. It should be noted that I personally don’t know anyone who does.

  5. Like Nightengale, I use special when it’s in the context of something that’s sort of an officially accepted term, like “special education.” Other than that I have a visceral reaction to the word not unlike I do with the R-word.

    I hate the word so much that I don’t even use it to describe important, cherished things.

  6. “You think you’re special.”

    I hear that a lot. Where I work, and around and about.

    You think you’re special. Getting an ADA accommodation with doctor’s notes and everything for a problem so-and-so had for years and toughed out without any help.

    That was me, during the lights incident, being played against a coworker who also has fibromyalgia and migraines and has trouble with the lights.

    You think you’re special. You get help with paying for living expenses while you go to school. I had to pay it all myself/had to forego school altogether because I had to put food on the table.

    That would be our clients. People who are asking for help to get through vocational school really rankle the workers here. It strikes a nerve. They reeeeeeally don’t like those clients.

    You think you’re special. You get these nondiscrimination policies and you get accommodations ‘n stuff when back in my day, we had to struggle through and make the best ourselves.

    That would be the general chatter I hear, the sentiment that is thickly present around the cases of PWD seeking success in their lives and standing up for their rights to certain things while doing it.

    That is what I think of when I hear the word “special.” It’s lovely that friends-and-family of PWD think it’s a positive-connotation word and all, but it plays rightthefuck into a very insidious narrative already present in our society. Bootstrap individualism reigns all, and the masses become extremely resentful of anyone who is taking advantage of any sort of collective support. If they do receive that support, they’d better be practicing a life of deprivation and minimalism.

    To do otherwise just means you’re asking to be treated special.

    That makes you uppity. And we all know what comes when you get uppity.

  7. One of the things I remember from my brief foray into teacher training (I dropped out after the first semester) about five years ago was that we were told never to use the expression “special needs”, because, as one of our lecturers used to say, “all children are special, and all children have needs”.

    The preferred term in the Scottish education system is “additional needs” (or at least it was the last time I looked). This could have the same pitfalls as the s-word, but it represented a change in education theory about the way that additional needs were recognised and how schools should respond, so that children were not required to have a medical diagnosis before their needs could be met.

  8. I’m working at a camp for people with intellectual disabilities (well, some of the campers in their early teens have only non-intellectual disabilities, but it’s probably 5-10 people in the whole camp of 70-80 people) and no one ever uses any word that means intellectual disabilities, they only say “special needs.” I just think it’s really weird because we’re basically talking about a particular kind of disability and I don’t know why we can’t just say it.

    In general, I guess I don’t get why we can’t just say disability. Like, why can’t special education just be called education for students with disabilities? Why do we need to use a euphemism?

    I feel like it’s good to use the word disability because when you just talk about something openly and straightforwardly, it’s harder for people to say and do messed-up things. I feel like the word disability politicizes things, for one thing. “Special education” is education for a particular population of students who are part of an oppressed minority group. They deserve equal treatment. It’s not cute rainbow unicorn education. It’s education for disabled students.

  9. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a special education teacher. That’s because it’s the usage they understand, even though it makes me a bit uncomfortable. I like talking to follow educators better, because then I can tell them I teach ESS pre-K. ESS stands for Exceptional Student Services, which is what special education is called in our district. If I’m talking about my students, I’m generally talking about them as people and not their disabilities (i.e. N. likes the gigantic stuffed duck a lot and knows all his colors!). But if I do talk about the disability that gets them into my class, I’ll be more precise: N. is developmentally delayed with a medical diagnosis of autism. I really don’t like using special needs at all.

    Similarly, if I’m talking about myself and disability, I’ll say that I have problems with sensory integration, speech apraxia and depression. The accommodations and therapy I received for those weren’t special, just needed.

  10. I love this piece. Thank you.

    Reading through the comments, I started wondering if any part of the reason some people cling to “special needs” is that it sounds less like segregation than “school for people with disabilities,” “camp for children with disabilities” and whatnot, where “special needs” sort of implies needs are being met.

  11. Slight derail here:

    As far as alternative terms for Special Eucation go, my high school had the Ed Support program. Basic idea being extra support given to those who needed it. I like the phrasing, but it’s not my place to say if someone in the program found/finds it acceptable or stigmatising.
    pharaohKatt´s last blog post ..And there was great rejoicing-

  12. Not a derail at all! I’m actually really excited to see people in this thread discussing alternatives to ‘special education,’ a phrase I find personally repugnant. So, keep up the good work, commenters!

  13. 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.

    That’s it exactly. It plays to this idea a lot of able people have of accommodations: as some kind of optional extra with which the system kindly indulges some whim or fancy of ours.

    I’ve always found ‘special children’ and ‘special needs’ a bit off, but for a long time I couldnt’ articulate why. And I think it’s the isolation factor that you mention. Plus the tendency (and I’ll admit this is a risk with any label) of the label to become bigger, in the eyes of the able observer, than the person – like someone alluded to above, it’s awful when a person, describing someone else, says, ‘He’s special needs.’ Like: He IS special needs. He is a label. He is his needs, his impairment, his disability, rather than being a full, complex individual.

    I think another problem is that, the more euphemistic a label is, the more liable it is to be used to ridicule people, and even to ridicule the very idea of choosing our words so as not to cause harm. I remember when we started hearing terms like ‘mentally challenged’ being used to replace the former ‘mentally handicapped’ in the media – the term’s implicit sugar-coating meant that it was very quickly taken up as a weapon both against social justice (we can mark the ‘it’s political correctness gone mad!’ bingo square) and against the people being labelled: ‘mentally-challenged’ gained the playground insult currency that antiquated clinical terms like ‘moron’ and ‘retard’ once had. And I’ve heard ‘special’ used in the same insulting way, even in a children’s cartoon…

  14. I’ve heard some places are now using extraordinary education for Special Ed and Gifted Education. Of course, there’s over lap between those, so I find it interesting.

  15. Great post, and fabulous comments.

    I try to do a slippery sort of thing with terms like “special ed” and “handicapped parking,” because that is what they are officially called (where I live). So, I say “SpEd,” or if I’m dealing with someone “in the system” or trying to educate or avoid the terms further, I say “IDEA” or “766” (the relevant federal and state laws, respectively). For my parking placard, if I HAVE to indicate that I want to park THERE, I say “HP parking.” The signs say “HP,” so I say “HP.” What the heck does “handicapped” mean anyway? There’s a word ripe for AWP (unless one has been done and I missed it).

    When I see “special treatment,” I can’t stand it for all the reasons everyone above has said. There is such rage, even hatred, when people think someone else is getting something they don’t have. It also reminds me a lot of how successfully anti-GLBT laws have been enacted in so many US states by the bigots simply taking “equal rights” and changing it to “special rights” (or “special treatment”).

    And yeah, “special” has become a code word for extremely nasty insults. I watch a lot of stand-up comedy (which is a bastion of ableism, even among comics who are feminist, anti-racist, pro-gay, etc.), and almost every comic has this as a go-to: “She’s very [significant pause, knowing look, whisper into mic] special,” and it gets a huge laugh. Vomitous.


    What really gets my goat about this whole “special” business is how people who would otherwise be allies have internalized the word’s negative social connotations enough to the point where they still use it as an insult. For example, one of my best friends was the first to reach out to me after my diagnosis with AS and OCD, and I’ve been able to talk really frankly about my mental issues with her and she’s never judged me. Yet she still calls people who annoy her “special.” Urgh. I know she’d never use it with someone like me who has mental health issues, but the fact of the matter is that her continuing to use it as an insult hurts people like me. I need to talk to her about this soon, and I just hope she takes me seriously—similar efforts with my parents have sort of crashed and burned.

  17. Well, “special needs” was the commonly used term in the UK (late 1980s to early 1990s I am talking about) to lump anyone with any special need whatever, be they physically disabled or with challenging behaviour, and in the latter case the needs were perceived as special but the children absolutely weren’t. In my case I was dumped in a boarding school which was run by utter cowboys where bullies were allowed to run riot (it was part of their problem, you see).

  18. I despise this word and every connotation of it – almost as much as I despise the r-word.

    These days, it is pretty much meant as an insult, or is used to dehumanise. I can’t remember the last time I heard it used in a positive context. I don’t think many people consider the ableist undertones to the use of insults like the commonly seen “special little snowflake”, or the historical context of the term “special treatment”. Not to mention the implications of “special treatment” when applied to access/accommodations as getting something more that others get, rather than something that is needed.

    I would prefer to see this euphemism go away and be replaced with honest descriptions of the services available. ‘Education for the Disabled’ or Education for Disabled People/Children’ instead of ‘Special Education’. ‘Additional Needs’ rather than ‘Special Needs’. And I could go on.

  19. About calling special education “disabled” or “disability” education — I would like to hear from kids (not college students, but primary school age) and their parents as to whether they would accept that.

    My brother was born with learning disabilities, and now, in his late 40s, he is still not “out” about LD to anyone but family and extremely close friends, although he now has additional diagnoses (such as ADD). He works in social services, same agency for 25+ years, and says they don’t know because he hasn’t told them. I’m posting with a different avatar because he has asked me never to write publicly about growing up with a sibling with a disability under my own name. He refers to himself as having “overcome” his disability, as do my parents. I can’t imagine my brother or my parents preferring the term “education for the disabled.” They would protest he did/does not have a disability.

    Having worked in info/referral about disability education, I heard a lot of parents saying “learning differences” and “special needs” and generally going to pains to use what I perceive as euphemisms. The same was true when my friend/colleague collected writings and art by kids with disabilities. Often the kids or parents backed out because of the “D word,” or referred to them/selves as “not disabled but special,” etc. I don’t know why, but in this realm, it seems like very few want to say “disability.” Am I wrong? Has this changed?

  20. Thank you for this blog post. I’m a nondisabled person looking into teaching children with disabilities – what is referred to as “special education” – and I’ve been struggling to explain why I find that phrasing so patronizing. So thank you.

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