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. …

I’m only going to say this once.

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There’s a reason you don’t see Dwarf/Little People parents (meaning, parents with dwarfism of kids with dwarfism) sharing videos of their kids sobbing and traumatized from being bullied. And it’s NOT that it doesn’t happen.

We know the truth……

It won’t change a damn thing..and will likely make it worse.

If abled-gaze informed ideas of “awareness” really worked, given all the damn attention the dwarfism community gets, don’t you think by NOW the averages would have changed their behavior?

We have whole networks dedicated to reality shows. We have Emmy/Golden Globe winners. We have heads of foundations, engineers, White House staffers, geneticists, teachers, lawyers, members of the Harlem Globetrotters. …

I get it. You love Tyrion Lannister. He’s amazing. He’s complex. He’s just like you. Only he’s not. Because you’re average height and he’s not. Sitting on the Amtrak at 5:00am I found myself wondering what the future holds for Peter Dinklage.You meme him. You quote him. You buy swag with him on it. You even dress up as him for Halloween (I’ve seen at least two of you). But now that Winter has come for the series, I have to wonder will his career be more than a blip. …

In 2003. At a little people convention in Boston, I was drugged.

I had recently gotten some disturbing news about a friend of mine, and with another dear friend walked to the bar and proceeded in doing two tequila shots. After the shots, I had to go to the restroom. Upon entering the stall I collapsed. I remember little else until waking up the next morning on the floor of my mom’s hotel room. The details of that evening or sketchy, but, I know my friend went and asked another friend to help come and get me out of the restroom because she couldn’t move me. The first friend refused. Then, thankfully, she ran into part of my chosen family who didn’t hesitate to help me, and also went and got my mom. The paramedics were called and quickly confirmed to my mom that I had been drugged. …

I wrote a piece awhile back talking about the connection between Trauma and Disability as it relates to mass shootings. With the goings-ons of the last few weeks and the confirmation hearings for Judge Kavanaugh, I feel the need to revisit.

“The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability.”

The ADA National Network (a network of centers who provide training and technical assistance on the ADA) define activities of daily living as “Major life activities are those functions that are important to most people’s daily lives. Examples of major life activities are breathing, walking, talking, hearing, seeing, sleeping, caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, and working.” …

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We know this list is FAR from inclusive, so who are we missing? Feel free to tag them in the comments.

  1. @SinsInvalid the originators of the framework of Disability Justice
  2. @VilissaThompson — founder of @RampYourVoice and creator of the Black Disability Syllabus
  3. @Sblahov Disability vote organizer for @NCILAdvocacy and leader in #chronichealth spaces
  4. @behearddc — the AMAZING organization that advocates for Deaf and Disabled folx behind bars.
  5. #CriptheVote and its founders @SFdirewolf @AndrewPulrang and @GreggBeratan — they engage in dialogues on subjects so tough that that put the salons of the Renaissance to shame
  6. @Keah_Maria — an amazing journalist writer with a book coming out soon, and creator…

I want to start off this column by saying I hate the title I’ve given it. I hate the average height public’s obsession with Little People (LP or LPs) and the “Little/Big” dichotomy. (It honestly makes you all seem even weirder than I thought you were before TLC became “The Little Channel.”) I blame reality television for the continued exploitation of my community. But I want this piece to be read by all of you therefore I chose a title that’s like catnip for the nondisabled public. Congratulations!! You have fallen into my trap.

Suicide is a huge issue within the dwarfism community and until recently discussions of mental health have really been seen as a taboo subject. Something that’s talked about in the darkness of the hotel room with your friends at 4 o’clock in the morning after a convention or regional, whispered over hushed tones over the telephone when you found out that yet another one of your friends is gone. With every death that is chalked up to an “accidental overdose” of pain meds, anxiety drugs, and alcohol, you wonder really how accidental it was. The first and only time I’ve seen the issue discussed outside of the LP community what’s when I watched the movie “In Bruges” Colin Farrell makes a comment to a Little Person actor that he had heard that LP actors tended to commit suicide at a very high rate. I wonder who the director or screenwriter knew that lead him to this conclusion. …

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Source: New York Daily News

Every time there is a mass shooting or an act of horrific violence the disability community holds its breath. Nondisabled folks tend to forget us as a “people” unless we can be scapegoated. We wait, terrified to spin the wheel of criminalized disability, Autism, PTSD, Bipolar, Depression-which will it be this week?

I’ve been pleased to see multiple statements come out of the disability community about the acts of terror from Charlottesville this weekend. I remember only 2–3 years ago being met by the unbearable silence after events, or statements worded so narrowly that they were beyond sparse.

But even with the statements from groups on the very front line of the work, something is missing. Something big and important. Something life changing. Distance, whether purposeful or not was created in the language used. We still speak of the victims, whether hit by the car, terrorized by the Nazis, or witnesses and participants in civil disobedience, at arms length. They have suffered pain and in many cases acquired disabilities they will have to learn how to manage for the rest of their lives, whether physical, sensory, mental health and yet we don’t mention it at all in our press releases. …

In the last few days many folks have been posting the Oompa Loompa meme that jokes that you’d like to see the Oompa Loompa’s come and escort out each member of the Trump administration on the event of their departure.

At first I ignored it, as I tend to do initially at things that poke fun at little people. (Stop, I don’t want to hear you start with how this mocks Trump folks instead. This is a time for YOU to learn. So learn.) But within a day or so it was everywhere. Activists who work on issues tied to LGBTQIA equality, immigrant rights, police/state violence, environmental justice, it was pretty much showing up across the social justice space. …


Rebecca Cokley

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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