Why “Special Needs” is Not Helpful

Rebecca Cokley
Feb 28 · 3 min read

Why “Special Needs Student” is not the preferred lexicon

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I was asked by a friend to share a memo I had drafted awhile for several presidential campaigns about why a majority of the disability community finds the term “special needs” offensive. I want to be very deliberate in giving credit to all the folks who have helped inform this brief resource guide, including Meriah Hudson Nichols, Lawrence Carter-Long, Jamie Davis-Smith, Alice Wong, Vilissa Thompson and others.

There is a whole campaign by disabled people, typically organized under the hashtag #SayTheWord (https://www.npr.org/…/02/25/468073…/disabled-just-saytheword). It crosses diagnosis, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. and the argument it makes, is that as people with disabilities (or disabled people) our NEEDS aren’t special. We need the exact same things that nondisabled people need, to eat, to sleep, to live, to thrive, to engage in society and more. There’s not a need you have, that a person with a disability does not. Our needs maybe more complex, or require skillsets the ableds don’t have (such as ability to cut through pages of bureaucratic morass, the ability to deal with patronizing ableist microaggressions), but they’re still just basic needs.

  1. Special needs was not a term developed by the disability community. We chose “disability” whereas a majority of disability euphemisims, “special needs,” “differently abled,” “physically/mentally/emotionally challenged” “handicapable” were all developed by NONDISABLED people, educators, and family members. (https://www.meriahnichols.com/3-reasons-say-disability-ins…/)
  2. It erases the expertise of disabled adults who find it infantilizing and inappropriate. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/my-daughter-doesnt-have-s…/)
  3. It is not a term defined in law. One reason the disability community uses “disability” is because the use of the world is connected to civil rights statutes. The Americans with Disabilities Act. The Individuals with Disabilities Act, the Developmental Disabilities Civil Rights Act.
  4. “Disability” talks about us as a people, not a service, “special needs teacher” centers the “special needs” versus the community you are engaging with. If you want to call yourself a special education teacher, that is fine, as that is in the law, but special needs is not. And it offends us.
  5. It does not cover the entirety of people with disabilities because not all disabled students are in special education classrooms or receive special education services. (https://www.washington.edu/…/what-difference-between-iep-an…)
  6. Special needs, gives the impression that the rights of people with disabilities are special or extra. We have the same rights as everyone else. How we access those rights may differ, but disability rights are fundamentally the same civil rights as all people. When you imply that the act of accessing our rights is “special” it gives the rest of the public a pass to treat us as though our rights are a special privilege, and then we get harassed for it.(https://www.damemagazine.com/…/i-prefer-that-you-say-im-di…/)
  7. It implies an out of date approach, given that the modern research shows us that 60% of students with disabilities spend 80% of their day in a general education, mainstream setting, alongside their peers. When you refer lovingly to “special needs students” or being a “special needs teacher” it also gives our community the impression that you think segregation is the appropriate setting for disabled Americans, which is not in line with your agenda. (https://www.educationnext.org/edstat-60-percent-students-d…/)
  8. “Special needs teacher” also reinforces a sense that disabled students are saintlike or deserving of pity. Special education teacher focuses on our education, our academic and social engagement. It gives us agency.
  9. Saying you don’t like the word “Disabled” or don’t see us as “disabled” is insulting, as it erases a part of who we are, and totally erases the oppression we face as a result of discrimination. (Look at #DisabledAndCute #DisabilityTooWhite) https://www.huffpost.com/…/what-to-call-disabled-perso…/amp…
  10. Because we asked you to. 30 years after the ADA don’t you think we deserve the right to self-determination? IJS

Rebecca Cokley

Written by

Rebecca Cokley is a lifelong disability rights activist, thought leader, and Director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress

Rebecca Cokley

Written by

Rebecca Cokley is a lifelong disability rights activist, thought leader, and Director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress

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