Especially good reasons to not say “special needs”

Listen to this post:

I’m gonna come right out and say it:  I don’t like euphemisms. I love the words “can’t,” “hate,” and “no.” I’m a fan of throwing my hands over my ears and yelping, “I’m done! It’s loud!” and running out of the room as opposed to mulling about in painful noise and casually mentioning to someone, “Gee, it seems like the volume is up pretty high, doesn’t it? Oh, but it’s all good. What a great song. I might like it at a lower volume.” Smile, smile, smile.

In my East Coast Jewish culture, we’ll say the word “cancer,” but it has to be whispered:  {cancer}. My dad recently asked me how my “various afflictions” are going these days. “Fine! I’ve gotten them day passes to the zoo and sent them out with disposable cameras, Dad. How are yours?”

I understand the role of euphemisms:  to be a little less direct and confrontational, to soften a blow, to lend a more positive tone to something negative. I’m not 100% against them. Because I recognize that what sounds harsh to me is soft to you, and what sounds like a euphemism to me is unbearable to you. Such is the nature of language and symbolism in general.

Years ago, a speech therapist who works with people with TBI disabilities gasped in horror when I identified myself as being “brain-injured.” They asked why wouldn’t I wanna say, “I’m a person with a brain injury” or “I’m a person with difference.” Too many words. I cannot be bothered to say all those words every time it comes up. And I’m not currently a “person with a brain injury” because you could scan my brain with the most sensitive scanning technology, and you’d see no injury. I don’t literally have a brain injury. But am I brain-injured? Sure. I hear a useful difference in the description, not something negative. My being brain-injured is a reason why I have trouble reading calendars and clocks, why my eyes don’t point in the same direction, and why my head aches in noisy places. But I also respect that the difference I perceive is my perception. Someone else will perceive a different difference or no difference. Such is the nature of language and symbolism in general.

So euphemisms. I found a very cool research paper that’s researchy but not written in overly-academic language. It’s called “‘Special Needs’ Is an Ineffective Euphemism.”

There are some outstanding arguments from people who’ve been thrown into the “special needs” category, such as this lovely piece by Michelle Sutton. Michelle describes how disabled people’s needs are called “special” when they inconvenience non-disabled people. As long as we don’t need to ask for something that changes a non-disabled person’s experience (or we inspire them by being alive and, at times, happy), they don’t consider us special. At that point we’re regular, or normal, or people. Erin Human argues that calling disabled people’s needs “special” gives the false impression that by seeking accommodations and access, we’re getting extras. Access is a bare minimum to participating. It’s by no means extra. Also, my word! Even if someone did get something extra doesn’t automatically mean that they took something from you. Also, why can’t you share?! Extra time to take a test in school harms non-disabled people how? A ramp takes what away from non-disabled people? Captions remove which content from a movie? Large print, Braille, or screenreader accessibility destroys what experience for someone who doesn’t require those things?

In addition to the clear and exceptionally useful first-hand experiences in these two blogs and many others, the research article pointed out a billion more arguments I really love against the term “special needs” as a euphemism. Here’s a few.

  1. The term is so vague and covers so many, many things not related to disability or impairment that it’s not useful for communicating something about a particular group or need.
  2. “Special” programs are nearly always segregated from mainstream, or non-disabled, society. How did “special” and “segregated” become conflated around disability, and why aren’t more non-disabled people pissed off about it?
  3. Civil rights are not special. Anti-discrimination laws are written to protect civil rights and human rights, not special rights. So if we have anti-discrimination legislation–which we do–by definition, the legislation doesn’t protect specialness. It’s meant to protect humans from discrimination by other humans.

I know some people with and without disabilities still prefer “special” to describe disability-focused, accessible, accommodated, and other related things. But the article and the many pieces of writing available against the term are evidence that “special,” as a euphemism, is not universally useful or even universally acceptable. Looking at how some people feel it’s a condescending, obnoxious, and non-useful term, it’s clear that for some people it’s now a dysphemism. That’s a term that is more negative than the one it was supposed to replace, like “special needs” is supposed to replace the word “disability.”

Regardless of what types of terms you prefer, I would ask that when someone protests “special” or asserts identity-first language that you let it go at the least. It’s condescending to tell people they’re self-identifying incorrectly, and it minimizes their experiences. If you’re up for more, find out about the intersections of race, gender, and ethnicity with the history of institutionalization, segregation, forced sterilization, job and housing discrimination, police brutality, carceral system brutality, and readily excusing parents who murder their children with disabilities to see why “special” just isn’t going to cut it for everyone everywhere all the time, even though it most definitely does work well for some people in some places at some times. If you’re Twittery, check out #SayTheWord.