“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?