Stop Calling Some Needs ‘Special’

A new World Down Syndrome Day video shrewdly takes on a problematic euphemism.

The actress Lauren Potter sits on a couch looking skeptically at the camera, and says that if people with Down syndrome needed to “wear a giant suit of armor, that would be special.” The video cuts to a handsome young man in full battle armor, walking casually down the freezer aisle in a grocery store. He flips a box of something from one hand into his basket. A young woman walks by, eyeing him flirtatiously, and he meets her gaze as he strides forward…either toward glorious battle or the quick checkout lane.

The message: People with Down syndrome do not have “special needs;” as Potter puts it at the end of the video, they need education, jobs, opportunities, friends, and love, just like anyone else.

Finally, a World Down Syndrome Day viral video I can get behind.

Each year, CoorDown, Italy’s national organization for people with Down syndrome, works in collaboration with other major Down syndrome groups to release one of these slick, expensive videos. This is by far my favorite of the bunch.

Last year, as I wrote for The Establishment, the video featured a woman with Down syndrome’s voiceover explaining that she saw herself as Olivia Wilde — i.e. thin, white, supermodel gorgeous — who acted out the voice’s descriptions. It was well intentioned, but its instruction to not see disability was the antithesis of a message embracing diversity. Disability should absolutely be seen.

Before that, we got a cute wedding proposal. It was sweet, but I’m not sure the typical viewer came away with anything other than an inspirational, “awwwww.”

In 2014, “Dear Future Mom” tried to fight the fear that many expectant women feel when confronting a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome by showing people with Down syndrome saying they are “happy.” Happiness is great, but it’s not equality or integration.

Now, though, the brave armored knight and his comrades are joining me in one of my most fervent quests — to slay the phrase, “special needs.”

My son, who has Down syndrome, is 10. By the time he was 3 (thanks in part to spending his first few years reading everything I could get my hands on), it was pretty clear to me that while he had particular needs, they weren’t all that special. He needs an education, safe housing, independence, meaningful community, health care, and basically all the other stuff that everyone else needs. Our means to get him there might vary and require specific techniques, tools, and resources, but it’s not because his needs are so “special.”

By the time he was 3, it was pretty clear to me that while my son had particular needs, they weren’t all that special.

Moreover, as a euphemism, “special” has become its own brand of insult. Anecdotally, I increasingly see people substituting the word where they might have used the word “retard,” because ableism can always survive the shifting of norms. “Special,” appended before “snowflake,” was the “defining insult” of 2016, according to The Guardian. “Special” connotes both undesirably different and unjustly self-centered.

In fact, there’s a broad cross-disability movement dedicated to working against euphemisms like “special needs” or “differently-abled.” While the origins of the expression “special needs” are complicated and debated, Rebecca Cokley, executive director of the National Council on Disability, explained to me that it’s clear “the term was never chosen by our community; it was chosen by educators, family members, and other professionals who felt uncomfortable by the use of the term ‘disability.’”

Ableism can always survive the shifting of norms.

Cokley adds that when you claim the title “special needs,” you’re not entitled to anything legally. “No statute concerning the civil rights of individuals with disabilities uses the term ‘special needs,’” she says. There’s no “Americans with Special Needs Act,” whereas “disability” comes with specific, powerful civil rights protections.

“‘Special needs’ doesn’t get you a book on tape. ‘Differently abled’ doesn’t entitle you to a ramp,” Cokley points out. ‘Disability’ does.”

It’s not just about law, either. Lawrence Carter-Long launched the #SayTheWord campaign in 2016 to get people to use “disability” or “disabled” rather than dodging the issue. He told me that in the past, “Disability was only a diagnosis, but it now equals identity, it equals community, it equals history, it equals constituency. So part of saying the word is the recognition of the evolution of what the word has become.” He’s equally opposed to special needs, as a concept, because, “A need isn’t special, if other people get to take the same thing for granted.”

The #NotSpecialNeeds video doesn’t say the word disability, but I don’t know that it needs to do so. It’s an impressive piece of work, chipping away at the euphemism “special needs” with hilarity, positing scenarios that would qualify as special, like needing massages from cats or celebrities to conduct wake-up calls (the latter scene features John C. McGinley, the actor from Scrubs, whose son has Down syndrome).

Several of the actors with Down syndrome in the film are celebrities in our world, including Potter (best known from Glee), but also including the geniuses behind Spring Break Zombie Massacre, a zombie movie written and directed by two men with Down syndrome from Rhode Island. A major ad firm, Publicis, crafted the PSA with expert production throughout. The quality shows through.

It’s sort of a relief to not have to be frustrated, for once, with all the money poured into World Down Syndrome Day messaging. The self advocate communities are richly diverse and wildly creative, often in highly subversive ways. Finally, there’s a PSA that reflects that reality, celebrating the full humanity of people with Down syndrome, in all their wry, suave, silly, and surly glory.

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