Disabilities vs. Special Needs - It's Time to Use the Words We Truly Mean

Disabilities vs. special needs, using the words we truly mean; Removing the Stumbling Block

I have wondered aloud (and in writing) about the difference between using the word disability and the phrase special needs.

While I prefer the term disability as I think it is clear, understandable and not in any way derogatory, I have been approached by parents of students in my school who have asked me to use the language of special needs because they find it gentler.

But here’s the thing: Don’t we all have needs? And aren’t we all special in some way? 
Seriously. I am not saying this as a tongue-in-cheek attempt for a giggle. I mean it. Every one of us has needs. And every single one of us is special in some way. 

I think one of the biggest problems is that the word special is so drastically overused that it doesn’t have any “punch” around its meaning anymore. It’s true. 

Think about it. There are definitely words in the English language that are so overused that they have lost their meaning. Examples include awesome, totally, really and absolutely. This article highlights eight more.

So what do we do about the term special needs?

If you ask disability rights activists and self-advocates, many will share that they think special needs is a euphemism that has to go. Michelle Sutton, a neurodiversity rights activist, in My Needs Are Not Special writes:
“They are not “special” needs. They are needs I have because of disability. Saying it differently doesn’t change the fact. Saying it differently actually perpetuates the stigma around disability, increases the likelihood people will continue to see me as other and broken, and decreases the chance my needs will be met…All people have needs. When their needs are met, all people live their lives well. All people receive help to see their needs met from time to time. Our society works on shared ideas, spaces and resources. Assisting a non-disabled person to see their needs met is not perceived as heroic, patient or inherently good. It is called living life in community.”
This same point is illustrated in the article, “He Ain’t Special, He’s My Brother” – Time to Ditch the Phrase “Special Needs” written by Catia Malaquias and published on Starting w/Julius:

“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 path to a life of exclusion and low expectations…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.”
But here is the point that resonates with me most deeply:

“There is another insidious but serious consequence of being labeled (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 mainstream schooling systems – it is a barrier to mainstream schools, administrators and teachers feeling responsible, empowered or skilled to embrace and practice inclusive education in regular classrooms, and accordingly perpetuates attitudinal resistance to realising the human right to inclusive education…In other words, the language of “special needs” leads to, and serves to excuse, a “can’t do” attitude as the default position of many general educators – it effectively deprives inclusive education of its necessary oxygen – a conducive “can do” classroom culture.”

I continue to be astounded by the number of times that I lead training sessions and am met by the comment, “Yes, but you are trained in special education;” a comment designed to suggest that I am the expert and therefore I am the only one who can do this work successfully.

I have said it before and I will say it again: special education is just good education.


The tips and tricks and strategies that make a classroom or a lesson successful for a student with a disability are the SAME tips, tricks and strategies that will benefit ALL CHILDREN.

Do teachers have to get creative? YES

Do teachers have to put in the time to prepare differentiated lessons that address diverse needs? YES

Do teachers have to know their students well to truly understand their needs? YES

But this is the work that teachers must do for ALL CHILDREN. And it is work that ALL TEACHERS CAN DO.

So I am in agreement. It is absolutely time to lose the phrase special needs. It’s time to reclaim our language and use the words we mean.

Because every single one of us is special in some way, and we each have something awesome to contribute to the world we live in and it is absolutely our collective responsibility to make living in shared community a meaningful reality. 

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