Dot Nary: ‘Special needs?’ Nope, call me ‘disabled!’ (Column)

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Recently, an acquaintance referred to me as having “special needs.”

It was a well-meaning reference to my use of a wheelchair, and I accepted it in that way. However, I did note kindly that I regard my needs as typical, not “special,” and that I prefer the term “disabled.” This is the term favored by most disability activists who are involved in a civil rights movement and who are working to create a world where everyone with any type of disability is respected, accommodated, and can participate. We have reclaimed the word, destigmatized it, and use it as a symbol of pride in our resilience. 

Much of our civil rights work involves raising awareness of the fact that 26% of Americans (more than 1 in 4) live with some type of disability. That means 61 million adults in the U.S. are members of this large minority that experiences conditions affecting their daily functioning. And these numbers do not include people who become temporarily disabled each year, and who must figure out how to negotiate daily activities with a hand splint, crutches, memory loss, etc. They also do not include people who experience stigma because they simply look or act differently than what is considered “normal.”

Given these large numbers, are our needs really “special?” Or do they just indicate that, as a society, we need to do things differently so that everyone can participate fully, whether in education, employment, recreation, civic groups, faith communities, or any of the other typical activities and settings that humans engage in? 

Too often, “special” has been a euphemism for “different,” or “separate and unequal.” For example, at an entertainment venue, a wheelchair user being seated in an area that is behind several rows of standing patrons who totally block the view is anything but “special.” And where do we draw the line on “special?” Does the 75% of the population who require corrective lenses have “special” needs? Or are those needs regarded as more acceptable simply because they do not cause inconvenience by requiring alterations to the way we build buildings, conduct events, or disseminate information? 

Historically, groups in society who assert their civil rights also influence what terms should be used to describe them. We have seen this evolution in language regarding Black Americans and women. It is similar for people with disabilities. Of course, there is never full agreement on terminology. But those of us involved in the disability rights movement regard the term “disabled” as a badge of honor, as we celebrate our perseverance in negotiating a society that has too often ignored our needs and excluded us. 

It is hard to believe that some language regarding disability has been considered acceptable in the past. For example, in the 1960’s, parents welcomed use of the term “mentally retarded” as a desirable descriptor for their children who had previously been called “morons” or “imbeciles.” What pain that must have caused. Now, however, “mentally retarded” is considered disrespectful, as use of an associated derogatory term has flourished. The term “intellectual disability” (ID) is currently preferred as both accurate and respectful to describe a group of people with disabilities that has too often been denied the right to make decisions about their lives and live in the community with supports. 

Whether it is a child with a mobility impairment needing a group recreation opportunity, an autistic teenager looking for a way to learn work skills, a deaf parent of a newborn searching for a supportive parents’ group, a man with an acquired brain injury seeking an opportunity to volunteer in the community, a person with mental illness cycling back into the workforce, or an older adult determined to access transportation in the context of vision loss due to macular degeneration, people with disabilities encounter many barriers in trying to participate in everyday activities that nondisabled people take for granted. Being labeled with stereotypical and inaccurate terms is one of those barriers. 

I would guess that everyone reading this knows at least one family member or friend with a disability, whether or not they call it that. Yet we persist in creating environments that exclude disabled people, and in using terms that are at best inaccurate and, at worst, insulting (e.g., crippled, deaf and dumb, mongoloid, psycho, brain damaged, defective). Instead of acknowledging that disability is a common human experience, we insist on creating divisions between “us” and “them,” even as the incidence of disability increases due to medical advances that permit babies to survive low birth weight, crash victims and military personnel to survive trauma, and people to live to much older age. Indeed, anyone living a long life is likely to experience functional limitations, or disabilities, at some point. It is then that the need for accommodations such as ramps, automatic door openers, hearing loops, and large print materials become better understood and regarded as socially acceptable. Yet these accommodations and others like them are needed by people of all ages in order to participate fully in their communities. 

So, I suggest that we abandon the term “special needs” when we are, even unwittingly, using it as a way to communicate “different.” Let’s recognize that disabled and nondisabled people are more alike than different. We all have the same hopes and dreams, and we all have abilities to contribute to our communities — some of us simply may do things differently and need accommodation. Let’s work to make our community an inclusive one where everyone can live and thrive, whether disabled or not. THAT would be special!

For more information on language regarding disabled people, please see the University of Kansas Research and Training Center on Independent Living’s “Guidelines: How to Write About People with Disabilities.”

— Dot Nary is a disability activist, researcher, educator, and lover of animals. She grew up on the East Coast and still misses the ocean but loves the beauty of the prairie.

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