Disabilities Are Not “Special Needs”

It’s taken a decade of research into genetics and specific diseases and disabilities for me to gain even a fraction of understanding of my daughter’s syndrome. I still have no idea what I’m doing half the time. And I make plenty of mistakes. 

Case in point—until recently I didn’t even realize that the label “special needs” was outdated and unacceptable. I’m immersed in this community, yet I was unaware. And if missed this, maybe you did too?

I’m not easily offended. I curse, I make gross jokes. I try not to take what people say too seriously and I try to cut people some slack when they say the wrong thing. We all slip up. Words don’t tell the whole story.

Our actions and intentions define who we are. 

But, when we are told point-blank that something is offensive, we should pay attention. Isn’t it our responsibility as compassionate citizens to do no harm whenever possible? And seriously, updating our vocabulary costs us nothing.

Let’s take the r-word for example.

I’ve written about it quite a bit over the years.

The word itself is harmless. It means late or delayed. When used appropriately, it should cause no harm. But it does. It hurts people with Down Syndrome. It hurts people with chromosome disorders. It hurts people with cognitive impairments. And it upsets the people who love them. To continue to use that word when we know it’s hurtful and when there are SO MANY OTHER WORDS that can take its place, is wrong. It’s mean. It’s ignorant. And it’s lazy. Learn a new word for heaven’s sake. 

Now let’s talk about “special needs.” I didn’t see the harm in the term, but guess what? I don’t have a disability. My young daughter is unaware that she is remotely different from anybody else. She doesn’t even know what special needs means, let alone if it bothers her. 

But, there are plenty of adults living with a variety of disabilities who can. They have been saying for a while (I’m so sorry I missed this) that their needs aren’t any more or less special than anybody else’s. Their needs are human needs. 

“All the other words Make us gag. ‘Handi-capable’, ‘People of all abilities’, ‘Different abilities’, ‘Differently abled,’ can be lumped together with ‘special needs.’ They all sound patronizing, condescending. These terms were made up outside of the disabled community, by people without disabilities. Their continued use, and the defence of their use by people without disabilities reeks of able-splaining; that is, people without disabilities explaining disability to people with disabilities.” Source

My child is different from her peers in significant ways, but I see now that her needs aren’t “special”—just unique to her. I thought that referring to myself as a “special needs parent” was unifying—an easy way to identify my membership to, and support of, a community. I had no idea the term was offensive.

But now that I’m aware, I have revised my vocabulary. 

There’s no universal catch-all replacement terminology. For now, the term people with disabilities prefer is just that, People With Disabilities; not to be confused with “a disabled person.”  People are not disabled, they have a disability. Their disability is just one part of who they are.

I was on Twitter today (because clearly my bio needs to be revised immediately)…

….and scrolling through I noticed that the majority of tweets with the hashtag #specialneeds were written in reference to children or students—presumably written by parents, educators, and caring advocates. Like me, they aren’t being intentionally disrespectful. They are merely unaware. 

I’m sharing so that kind, well-meaning, helpful friends and families can update their vocabularies too. 

Please help spread the word by sharing this post, or this video below. 

xo Lisa, mom to an awesome kid with a disability  

#kidswithdisabilities #humanneeds

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