Stop Saying “Special Needs”

“Special needs”

Hearing that phrase is like hearing nails drag across a chalkboard. (Does anyone even remember what a chalkboard is and that torturous sound?)

As Moses gets older, I understand more and more why individuals with disabilities and parents/caregivers of individuals with disabilities do not want that phrase to be used to describe them. 

I saw this video a couple of years ago at an event for moms of kids with Down syndrome:

At that point in my journey, I remember thinking something along the lines of, “Huh. I never thought about it like that.” And then I didn’t give it a lot more thought. 

Now that we’re starting to have conversations about Moses going into Kindergarten and are faced with the reality that the amount of time he gets to spend in the general education classroom is going to potentially be impacted by his “special needs”, I’m definitely giving it more thought.  

“Special needs” implies that his needs are so vastly different or complicated that they justify excluding him from the mainstream environment under the guise of “supporting” or “accommodating” him. 

What are his “special needs”?

Well, he’ll need to go to a speech therapist. Which other kids in his class will likely also need to do. 

He’ll likely need more redirection to stay on task during lessons and assignments. Which other kids in his class will also need. 

He’ll probably need help opening his milk carton at lunch. Which probably about half of the other kids in his class will need help with, too. 

He’ll need help tying his shoes if they come untied. Which, you guessed it! Most of the other kids in his class will need help with that, too. 

He’ll need love and patience and understanding from his teacher. Wait. So will every single one of his classmates. 

He’ll need opportunities to learn and practice social skills that will help him develop positive relationships with his peers. 

The majority of what Moses will need to be successful in the classroom are no different than most, if not all, of the other kids that will be in Kindergarten with him. Will he likely need some additional supports? Yes. But not to the extent that he’s out of the general education classroom more than he’s in it.

Some of you may be thinking to yourself, “But really what’s the big deal of saying ‘special needs’? It’s not offensive, right?”

No, it’s not necessarily offensive like the r-word is.

But it is a problem because it puts limitations on what individuals with disabilities have access to. It’s a problem because it implies that kids, or even adults, with a disability – say, Down syndrome – have needs that are so different or complicated that they should be kept separated from those with “normal” needs. 

The use of the term “special needs” tricks parents, teachers, administrators, and society into thinking that because of having a different level of ability and having to do some things differently or with support, it means that those kids aren’t able to be in the same classrooms as typically developing students. That they need to sit at a different table. That the bar for achievement should be set lower, if it’s even set at all. 

Moses doesn’t have special needs. 

He has the same human needs as every other human being on this planet. 

Again, yes, there are some areas, such as speech, that he needs extra support. Yes, there are some things that will take him longer to learn than others. 

However, none of those things are grounds for him to ever not have a seat in the classroom or at the table. He has so much to contribute to this world that I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the misconception that he has “special needs” ever be grounds for him being denied access to the spaces he has the right to occupy. 

When we stop using the phrase “special needs”, we are less likely to see people with disabilities as almost fundamentally different as human beings in some way. We will be less likely to use it as an excuse to exclude people with disabilities from spaces they have the right to occupy. We will stop faulting those with disabilities for not being “normal”. 

Perhaps those of us who are “normal” could do a better job of remembering that we have the ability and responsibility to respect that literally everyone is different in their own way and deserves to have their human needs met without question. Perhaps when we do that, the needs of those individuals with disabilities won’t seem that different at all. 

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