Needs Are Not Special

“Special needs” is one of those phrases that just kind of irks me.

I see it most commonly used in reference to children or developmentally disabled adults; the implication in both cases is that the “special needs” individual can’t function without someone else’s help. That this person is totally dependent. And it carries, to my ears, a subtle note of disability-as-tragedy and hardship. Because, of course, if someone is “special needs” that means that someone else must need to meet those “special needs,” right? And that person must be sacrificing so much to get those “special needs” met.

So, here’s why it bugs me. Needs aren’t special. They are just needs. A person who needs to eat through a PEG tube, for example, isn’t a “special needs” person. Ou is just a person. Who needs to eat. Eating is a need. It’s a widespread human need, in fact. Every human needs food. There are lots of ways to deliver that food. A PEG tube is one of them. Using a PEG tube for nutrition just means that you’re meeting your need for nutrition in a way that the able populace finds unfamiliar.

Likewise, everyone needs to breathe. To sleep. I would argue, to be happy and fulfilled. Again. These things are not “special.” They’re just needs. They are needs which all humans experience. And, again, needs can be fulfilled in many different ways. For me, happy is driving on a full moon night with the top down, blaring some music. For you, maybe it’s ballroom dancing. For that person over there, it’s sitting in silent meditation in a dark room. For someone else, it’s a big dinner with family and friends. Those are all ways of meeting the need for happiness, and none of them is better or worse than any other.

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.

Is there a better way we can phrase this? Is there a way that we can talk about people who do need aides, who do need support, that does not deny them autonomy and turn them into helpless individuals? Is there a way we can describe things without falling into the norming trap, in which we unwittingly reinforce the idea that there is a “normal” to aspire to and that everything else is below that?

Why can’t we just say that they are people with disabilities (or disabled persons)? Can the media say “a single mother caring for a disabled child,” instead of “a single mother caring for a special needs child”? Will the world fall down if that happens?

10 thoughts on “Needs Are Not Special

  1. As someone who’s the mother of a special needs child, I feel like I should give my perspective, although I apologize that I’m not well-versed in disability vocabulary.

    It’s a good point you’re making, that I haven’t thought of before. But it doesn’t feel right to me to call my son “disabled”. Maybe because I think of disability as a permanent condition (which is probably wrong) and I have no idea as to whether he will be disabled as an adult.

    I think “special needs” evolved in relationship to institutions (mainly school). If my son was in a school (a private, expensive one) totally catered to his disability (ADHD and possible bipolar) he wouldn’t really have any “special needs” at all. But since his learning style is among the minority, he needs accommodations to function in a public school classroom, plus medication. So I don’t think of “special needs” language as something that isolates him, I think of it as something that allows him NOT be isolated.

  2. In a truly free, equal, and fair society, no one’s needs would be considered special. They’d just be considered.

  3. It should be noted that the disabled people and terminology link above also highlights some of the differences between the disability movement in the UK and the US, specifically regarding differences in the usage of “disabled people” (considered in the UK movement to acknowledge that “disabling” is something that is done to people by society) vs. “people with disabilities” (considered in the US movement to be consistent with “people first” terminology that acknowledges humanity prior to any other identity). As far as I’ve seen, there’s not necessarily a lot of acrimony between these perspectives (despite disagreements about terminology), but it’s worth noting that neither is universally accepted.

  4. Disabled is scary, special needs are just **special** (Insert somebody five years older than me whining about how today’s kids are “special snowflakes”) and special is good. (And disabled is… bad!)

    Some parents may take offense at disabled, and search for a cure*. (My mom worked in elementary school “special ed” classes for the longest time, now she’s in high school ones.)

    *I was horrified to learn about one of my favorite high school teacher’s attitude about his autistic son when his son transferred to my mom’s school.

    I think some people are afraid of the word disabled – it seems, as atlasien said, to be a sign of permanence. This is how life will be. But one can outgrow the special needs, right?

    Especially resource in elementary school – because we’re all jammed together regardless of learning ability (if we’re “normal”) kids go to resource or apex (we made mummies!) until you get to middle school, and while there is still resource (though the county is trying to phase out resource in high schools. This year’s 9th graders, who had resource in 8th grade, don’t get it now. But the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders do.) there are also “advanced” classes or “remedial” ones… more of a split, so we’re not all playing to average and leaving the outliers behind, though that still happens in some classes.

  5. I feel like I’ll always identify as disabled (although, I’ll probably also always worry that I don’t have a right to). In fact when I am doing well at everything, I sort of worry that I don’t have the right to identify as disabled anymore. I guess the identity is something I feel close to because growing up as a disabled person, whether anyone calls you disabled or not, is something that has an effect on the way you think about things.

    It’s funny because I agree with a lot of what you’re saying in this post and in fact it’s a lot of why I identify as disabled, why I feel that I’m culturally different, because I felt like everyone thought I was so terrible and inconvenient when I was growing up. But I don’t actually agree about the term “special needs.” I wish someone had called me “special needs” when I was a kid, instead of lazy or a serial killer. My parents were always crying and reading books about how to help me and I felt like a hole in the roof. I don’t think Asperger’s/HFA kids were really in the public consciousness as much as they are now (this was like 6-10 years ago), and now when I read anything that refers to Asperger’s kids as “special needs” I feel incredibly jealous. Special needs sounds kind of sweet and interesting. I just felt like a monster when I was a kid.

    It is a really cutesy sounding term and it probably is better to just say disabled. But I don’t think it is necessarily othering. I mean, I think the original point of the term was probably to say, “everyone needs things, and these people happen to need things that are unusual.” It seems to be trying to make a point about how it’s not that disabled people are greedy/burdens like abled people sometimes think, but just that the things an abled person needs are invisible, because society provides them easily and they don’t have to think about it.

  6. special needs sticks in my craw, really. It feels like ‘differently abled’

    Disabled isn’t a bad word. I, personally, think people should use it. This is only my opinion, though.

  7. @AWV: As a person w/ Aspies who went though school as a “special needs” child in special ed I kind of disagree with you about the term. “Special needs” was really used to denigrate and abuse me. It was used to drill and indoctrinate me with the idea that I wasn’t as good as and wasn’t as capable or as socially valuable as my peers. Before I entered the special education system I was a much happier child, I knew I was different than my peers but it wasn’t until special education and “special needs” that that difference was really given a hierarchy.

    And it did all of this while denying me any real identity.

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