The term "special needs" has got to go. Here's why


A photograph of a black round sticker being held against a brown striped background. The sticker features a thin white outline, and has white handwritten text in the centre. Text reads "I am not an inspiration, nor a tragedy, I am simply myself."

Disabled people are often othered from the rest of society, our needs often categorised as special. But everyone has needs, so why are ours being segregated?


Special is a term used to soften the idea of being disabled, in a similar way to “differently abled”, “physically challenged”, or “handi-capable” – gag. These euphemisms are often used to put a positive spin on a negative, a way of distancing ourselves from uncomfortable truths. So I ask: whose comfort are we prioritising?


“Disabled” is viewed as a negative and emotive word by many non-disabled people, instead of a neutral descriptor. In a bid to steer clear, society will use literally anything else (no matter how patronising) and so the stigma surrounding disability prevails.


In actuality disabled is not a bad word, and for many disabled people it can be insulting to have the world assume otherwise.


Our needs aren’t really all that different when it comes down to it. Everyone requires accommodations, it’s just that society is set out to meet some people’s requirements and not others. Some accommodations are deemed “normal”, and others “extra”. Having different access needs is ok, it’s ok to be different. That’s not a bad thing either. But different doesn’t mean special. It’s not a favour.


Both non-disabled and disabled people have needs. And in many ways the actual need is the same, the way we fulfil it is different. That’s all.


Say we need to enter a building. Someone might use the stairs, while another might use a wheelchair and a ramp. The wheelchair user’s needs aren’t special, nor are they actually any different. They just need to get inside. And what’s so special about that?


Disabled people are often simply trying to go about our day. Like anyone else, we might need/want to eat, drink, rest, relax, communicate, learn, grow, connect with others and experience the world around us. Our requirements to fulfil these things may be different, but the need is the same.


The term “special needs” can feel infantilising and condescending to many disabled people. Perhaps because it’s use runs rampant within groups of parents and caretakers of disabled children. I can absolutely understand how being a parent can be overwhelming a lot of the time. I can also understand that having a child whose access needs are different from your own or what you expected can be a further challenge.


Disabled people are up against a range of political, socioeconomic, financial and discriminatory factors. I can see why you would want to distance your child from that in a bid to protect them. But the truth is, the word “special” doesn’t surround them in a protective bubble, and it does nothing to break down the barriers disabled people are up against. Looking away doesn’t make them disappear.


Teaching children about disability using softer language isn’t actually helpful, it’s confusing. We can state facts, use real terminology, apply neutral tones. They can cope with it I promise. We’re teaching children that the word “disabled” is wrong. And it isn’t.


Of course disabled people are still individuals. And an individual’s use of language is going to differ when describing their own experience. I’m not here to tell anyone that how they view themselves is wrong. But we absolutely have to shift society at large away from disability euphemisms. They should not be the norm. They should not be seen as largely more palatable.


More palatable for who?



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