- 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?