Why I Don’t Want To Be Referred To As “Special Needs”
Why I don’t want to be referred to as “special needs”
Whenever I see articles written about disability and see the title replacing the word disability with special needs, I get a shutter of distaste that consumes my “disability cringy things” part of my brain — the same part of my brain that shutters when someone applauds me for being out in public.. because when you’re disabled, leaving your house is brave. You know, all the things. Articles like this… one step towards inclusion and another step back, all in the same article. The funny thing — in the article they do use the term disabilities, so why not put it in the title?
Why do I shutter with distaste over a pretty common phrase used to describe disability? It’s just one instance in which society has curated another, more palatable way to avoid the big bad D word.. disability.
Sometimes when I’m having a conversation with someone I just met and I say the word disabled when referring to myself, I see their face start to squirm with discomfort.
Avoiding the word disability or disabled has become a common practice set in place by society. Some examples are saying differently-abled, special, special needs, and other things that are my equivalent to hearing nails on a chalkboard. CRINGE CITY with a side of ableism. I even copped on to person first language, that I was taught in college in one of my disability classes. The goal of PFL is to essentially put the person first and the disability second. Because I was taught this at University, I didn’t question it much. But, disability does not come second. In fact, it’s a main part of my identify that is a front-runner with my other attributes such as being a writer, advocate, creative, and being a witty, ranch-loving weirdo.
So why do we have to say “special needs” instead of saying disabled? Because it’s less harsh and beats around the bush? I think I hit the nail on the head, didn’t I…
While I don’t expect everyone’s ideas and opinions to align with my own, here’s why I am not a fan of the term special needs.
The word special implies that my needs are different, extra, or optional. While my needs are met somewhat differently than most (I need help wiping my butt), they’re the same needs as anyone else. Categorizing the needs of a disabled person as “special” makes me feel stigmatized and more different than society has already made me feel. How can we advocate for inclusion and equal access when our needs are seen as “special.” If we can’t normalize the needs of disabled people, we will remain in a little box society has placed us in labeled “DIFFERENT.” The implications of that can be pretty significant and can effect things you might not even think of, such as disability government assistance, equal access laws, and ADA compliance. That’s why we need to normalize the needs of disabled people. I’m not saying we’re not different... but that’s a subjective adjective. Because every single human is different and has different needs, preferences, and ways of living their lives — that’s not just exclusive to disabled people.
On a more basic note, I just HATE the word special. It reminds me of all the times in grade school where I was stigmatized as a “special needs” student and had my autonomy stripped away from me by having that label on my back. I feel as though being called “special needs” is mainly used in schools, like my example above. This is teaching the student and their peers that this disabled student is different and is to be treated as such. My needs can be accomplished in different ways, it doesn’t make them special. It makes them normal. Normal needs. Someone wiping your butt might be “special” from your viewpoint, but for me, it’s normal.
With that being said, why are we using a term that has to do with someone’s personal care to describe them as a person. My “needs” are not anyone’s business but mine and when we label disability as “special needs,” I’m sure the first thing you wonder is what exactly those needs are. This invites people to ask us what those needs are with an expectation for us to give an answer. Disabled people do not owe anyone an explanation about their care or disability. You can see how being labeled “special needs” could readily invite those questions that we get asked daily by strangers. “How do you pee?” “How do you have sex?” These intrusive questions are the result of people thinking disabled people are special and owe them an explanation, because, that’s how you labeled us. Everyone has needs and just because able-bodied people can’t understand them as well, they decided to label me as “special needs.” Which is funny, because I’m not “special needs.” I can’t be “special needs.” I’m disabled.
I’m a disabled, INDEPENDENT woman who has needs just like every other damn person. The end. No further explanation needed.