Why You Shouldn’t Say “Special Needs”…

and why I put the term in my title anyway.

I know the majority of my readers are not the parents of disabled children, and so you may be wondering what the point of this post is. You’re probably completely unaware that there’s actually a controversy over the use of the term “special needs” in regards to disabled people and their parents. I myself only became aware that special needs was an offensive term to some a few years ago after I started following more disabled adults on social media.

In general, following adults in the disablity community opened my eyes more widely to ableism and the discrimination that disabled people face on a daily basis. I decided in order to be a better advocate for my sons, I had to make sure I wasn’t holding onto any inherent biases against them because of their disability. Plus, I needed to listen to the voices of those who fight for disability rights in order to raise sons who can learn to fight and advocate for their own needs as they get older.

What disabled people would like us to say is the word disabled with either person first or disability first language (so either a child with autism, an autistic child, or a disabled child or child with disabilities). So if I’m trying to do better, why would I put “special needs parents” in the subtitle of my book?

Because most of the people who will buy my book are not aware it’s an offensive or outdated term. For parents whose children have just been diagnosed, the term special needs is the one they will most likely be typing in the search bar as they scan Google for help. In a lot of ways, it’s familiar and a lot less scary than identifying their child as disabled and themselves as the parent of a disabled child.

In time, most parents of disabled children reach a point where they are willing to listen to and learn from disabled adults. But so long as we have the terms Special Olympics and special education, special needs will be common parlance in the English language. And while it’s good to work towards using the language that disabled people prefer when we talk to and about them, it’s certainly not the first thing that the parents of a disabled child need to learn within the first few months, or even year, following their child’s diagnosis. In fact many parents of disabled children will hold onto the title special needs regardless. But rather than berate or belittle them, I hope that through my writing ( and by exposing them to disabled adult voices), I can help them make that transition in due course.

So that’s a short explanation. I think most disabled adults would probably prefer I don’t use special needs in my title, or when describing my ministry Accepting the Gift. I get that, and I hope to educate parents of disabled children to make the switch, but until mainstream society and media changes course, I need for parents to be able to find me, and right now I know they’re still searching for “special needs” because that is all they’re familiar with. It’s my hope that by sharing a look at a part of the disability community my readers may be unaware of, I’m helping more people choose their words more carefully. (Order my book HERE.)

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10 Comments

  1. THANK YOU for this post! I wondered about the title, knowing that you are well and widely read on disability. This is a beautiful example of how we can meet people where they are and call them to grow, instead of berating them for not knowing what they don’t know. Brava!

  2. I have so many thoughts on this topic and appreciate you sharing, explaining, and raising awareness around the language we use to describe people with disabilities. Another reason I think the term “special needs” can still be useful is because it’s been my experience that not all people with special needs are necessarily disabled. I view the terms as separate, but with special needs serving as an umbrella term that disabilities fall under. For example, my daughter has a congenital brain condition; the medical condition itself isn’t a disability – but it has the potential to cause any number of disabilities. So some people have this medical condition, require a medical device to live, and need regular MRIs and follow-ups – but that’s it. They would also need physical therapy while young, but if they don’t have disabilities they’ll outgrow the need for PT once their gross motor skills catch up. People like that are not disabled, but do have very different medical needs than someone without the brain condition. And on the other hand, people born with the same brain condition can have numerous disabilities in addition to needing this medical hardware to live. When my daughter was born I began to understand she has special needs based on her medical needs…but she wasn’t diagnosed with a disability until later. So for months we were in that gray area of having a medically complex child that didn’t have any known disabilities; and parents that find themselves in this space in between might find the term special needs incredibly useful to describe their situation. I routinely describe my child as “medically complex and disabled” because being one doesn’t automatically mean the other is true. Anyway, I totally understand the arguments against the term special needs, but I struggle with the idea of eliminating a word from our vocabulary that actually has utility. That’s where I’m at anyway!

    1. I’m in a similar place with “special needs”. It’s one of those things where the words are actually very accurate when describing my son Daniel’s situation.

      (He is my “medically interesting” child. Our health system does rotations for the local osteopathic medical school, and the students on the pediatric rotation geek out when they get to see a kid with some of Daniel’s genetics.)

      1. This is such a great post! I love learning more from the adult disability community.
        As an infant/toddler special educator the parents I work with rarely use the term “disabled” when speaking about their children. Also, in the absence of an obvious medical diagnoses, it is common for infants and toddlers to be diagnosed “at risk for….” In these cases a diagnoses comes with genetic testing or on-going observation of the child’s development.
        I try to use the same language the parents choose to use when describing their children.
        As a parent of a child with ADHD and a complex medical history I’m not really sure what language to use.
        “Disabled” is a complicated term. Like “mental illness” there is a broad range of disability and frankly, I’m not sure if using the term to describe my child would be an exaggeration. It feels a bit like using a disabled parking placard without a physical or neurological need – asking for more than we need. “Special needs” feels a little more expansive and inclusive.
        Two other thoughts…
        The term special needs was developed with good intention. The purpose was to replace language that was stigmatizing. That doesn’t make it ok, but it is worth considering.
        Also, it is important to remember that there is no unified voice for people with disabilities. While groups of individuals may share a common opinion, each individual should ultimately be able to use language they are comfortable with.

  3. I understand why disabled might be preferred, and I’ll try to use it forthwith.
    However, I think special education is the correct title. Special has a lot of meanings, and given that my daughter does need an education that is designed for her, different than the usual, it fits. It’s like a doctor being a specialist – to focus on a particular condition or situation. She could not function in a school without a different classroom, without trained teachers, without speech therapists.
    I will admit though, my daughter’s school district calls the special education class “Life Skills” which drives me nuts because it seems to minimize what she’s learning. I’ve suggested they just call them “Skills” classes – no takers. The teachers don’t like the title either, but no one has come up with an acceptable euphemism.
    Stephanie – I like your response. I have a child who is not disable mentally or physically, but needs accommodations for other reasons. He was not classified as disabled at the IEP consultation we had, but he still needs an extra support to help him succeed at school. So special needs can hold a variety of diagnoses and support issues, not just disability.

    I don’t know the right answer – I think any word people choose will be found wanting by someone.

  4. Thank you everyone for all your thoughtful responses. My question is, why do you feel like disability is too “strong” of a term to describe your child’s condition? There seems to be this feeling that “special needs” is more nuanced, and that using the term “disabled” is too severe. Is it because you have a more negative connotation of the term disabled? I would argue, and I think the point of many advocates, is that we need to normalize the use of the term disabled so parents aren’t scared to attached it to their child’s condition regardless of their specific diagnosis, abilities, or outcomes. It’s not bad to call your child disabled even if they “only” have ADHD, or they outgrow their disability in time. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to say, “My son has a learning disability”, or “My child had a gross motor disability as a toddler.” What I’m reading, and correct me if I’m wrong, is basically that “special needs” feels better to parents- and I get that. It’s why it’s on the cover of my book, but it also proves my point that while it may feel better and not as harsh, it makes “disabled” seem like a bad word we should only use for really, really disabled kids. It’s actually the preferred title many of our children will gravitate to as adults. And if they don’t; if our children refuse to call themselves disabled, what will they say? Do you know any disabled adults who refer to themselves as having “special needs”? I don’t. And I don’t want my sons to be ashamed of being disabled- they shouldn’t have to be. There should be no stigma to the word, and that will only come as we give up the idea that some disabilities aren’t as bad and deserve a “gentler” term like special needs.

    1. My comment wasn’t to suggest that disability was too “strong” of a word prior to my daughter being diagnosed with some disabilities. My point was that the word disability would have been inaccurate. I typically refer to my child as “medically complex and disabled,” so I don’t shy away from the word. In my community I’m actively working to break the stigma around disability language because there is nothing to be ashamed of. But I shared a little about our situation to try and explain why I can relate to people using the term special needs and why it made sense to me prior to knowing about any of my child’s disabilities. When we discovered my daughter’s brain condition and I began connecting with parent groups and medical literature, everything was very clear that this medical condition is NOT a disability in and of itself…but it has the *potential* to cause multiple disabilities. If someone tried to get disability benefits with this brain condition, you would be denied – because the medical condition isn’t the disability; if it causes disabilities then you can qualify under those diagnoses.
      My daughter’s case was severe, so she did automatically have gross motor developmental delays, but some kids have less severe cases and don’t have any developmental delays/physical therapy needs as an infant. I think the term “special needs” covers a lot of gray area in the medically complex world. I do think many parents “feel better” about the term special needs and it’s important to use accurate language rather than euphemisms. But I think there are also parents in situations where their child doesn’t have a diagnosed disability and so they struggle to use language that doesn’t seem appropriate. Perhaps this means parents need to be given better language tools to understand terminology – but then I still don’t know what you tell parents with kids that are medically complex but not necessarily disabled. I’m still relatively new to this world, so I could just be wrong – but I genuinely didn’t think all special needs are disabilities. Happy to learn more, though!

      1. I understand what you’re saying. There are times when a child or adult doesn’t have a disability, but still has a medical diagnosis. In that case, why say “special needs” rather than just the diagnosis or “medically complex”? I think the goal is to avoid special needs in favor of something else, even if it’s not the word disability. I understand parents may have a hard time figuring out the right terminology, and obviously, figuring out the right thing to say is understandably not their top priority. I don’t want to make parents feel bad about their choice of language when they’re dealing with so many other things, which is why I try to meet people where they’re at and when they’re ready, encourage them to consider other terms. Everyone in the comments is ready to think about these things, and is providing some great food for thought. I know people will accept different terminology, I just hope we can all be open to learning from disabled adults and considering terms we might not be comfortable with initially. I appreciate your comments Stephanie!

    2. I wonder if the nuance of special needs seems better to me because in my mind “disabled” means a physical disability? My daughter has DS, – she’s got delays, and apraxia, and all sorts of things attached, but she can walk and play like most kids her age. Maybe I’m just so used to her version of DS that is does seem simple and not needing a “stronger” term like disabled. My son has anxiety issues that have exploded during junior high – but does it need the label of disability?
      I don’t know any disabled adults well (except family members with conditions that evolved over time) so I have no background or experience in these waters. I’m just trying to support my kids (and they’re awesome) and get them the help they need.
      I just got your book in the mail. I hope to learn a lot from it!

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