“He ain’t special, he’s my brother” – Time to ditch the phrase “special needs”

Catia Malaquias

I’m not going to beat about the bush; every time I hear the phrase “special needs” I cringe.  I think it’s time that this damaging phrase, and the mentality that goes with it, is put on the scrapheap.

The phrase “special needs” is commonly used as a euphemism to refer to a person with a disability (particularly intellectual or cognitive disability and, more often than not, a child) or who otherwise functions in some way that is atypical.  As a euphemism it is generally offensive to and condescending of people with disability.

If you think about the use of the adjective “special”, it has become shorthand for describing places set aside for people with disability, e.g. “special schools”, “special education units”, “special workshops”, “special homes”, etc. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites and Facebook pages dedicated to people with “special needs” and to the parents of children with “special needs”. The phrase “special needs” is regularly used by the media – it is common language. It is an industry in itself.

Although human diversity, the social model of disability and inclusion as human rights framework concepts are developing traction, for much of society the “special story” still goes like this:

A child with “special needs” catches the “special bus” to receive “special assistance” in a “special school” from “special education teachers” to prepare them for a “special” future living in a “special home” and working in a “special workshop”.

Does that sound “special” to you?

In the minds of many in our society a “special needs” label is effectively a one-way ticket to a separate, segregated, low-trajectory pathway through life.

The word “special” is used to sugar-coat segregation and societal exclusion – and its continued use in our language, education systems, media etc. serves to maintain those increasingly antiquated “special” concepts that line the slippery path to a life of exclusion and low expectations.

The logic of the connection between “special needs” and “special [segregated] places” is very strong – it doesn’t need reinforcement – it needs to be broken.

Further, the “special needs” label sets up the medical “care” model to disability, rather than the social inclusion model of disability. It narrows and “medicalises” society’s response to the person by suggesting that the focus should be on “treating” their “special needs”, rather than on the person’s environment responding to and accommodating the person – including them for the individual that they are.

There is another insidious but serious consequence of being labelled (as having or being) “special needs”. The label carries with it the implication that a person with “special needs” can only have their needs met by “special” help or “specially-trained” people – by “specialists”. That implication is particularly powerful and damaging in our regular schooling systems – it is a barrier to regular schools, administrators and teachers feeling responsible, empowered or skilled to embrace and practice inclusive education – the education of students with disability alongside their same age peers in regular classrooms. Accordingly, the phrase perpetuates attitudinal resistance – a “can’t do” attitude – to inclusive education, so critical to maximising social and economic outcomes for people with disability.

Further, and more fundamentally, the concept of “special needs” is at its core flawed. There is no such thing as “special needs”. A child with a disability has the same needs as everyone else – the same human needs – to be loved, nurtured, fed, educated, sheltered – to move, communicate, participate and belong etc. A person may require some accomodations or more assistance – maybe significant assistance – in meeting a particular need, especially when their environment has been predetermined without regard for their disability, but they are still seeking to meet basic human needs.

The label of “special needs”, serving by definition to segregate or exceptionalise people with disability, is inconsistent with recognition of disability as part of human diversity. In that social framework, none of us are “special” as we are all equal siblings in our diverse family of humanity.

I’m reminded of the 1969 hit song by The Hollies about a young girl’s surprised response to a stranger suggesting that her little brother was too “heavy” for her to carry – I think my son Julius’ sisters would be just as surprised – even indignant – to hear their brother referred to as “special” because he has Down syndrome: I know they would say: “He ain’t special, he’s my brother”.

*Note:  Following the original publication of this post, a study published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications empirically tested general public attitudes toward the term “special needs” and the term “disability” and found that “persons of all ages are viewed more negatively when they are described as having “special needs” than when they are described as having a disability or having a certain disability”.  You can link to the study here and a blog article from the study’s author here.

[Cover photo of Drea, Julius and Laura © Warnock Imagery]

This article has been republished in Portuguese here by Inclusive in Brazil.

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