Thursday, January 9, 2014

Reverse Inspiration

Why "Special Needs"?

Photo of Scrabble game tile rack with tiles spelling out the word "WORDS"
I have another question for parents of children with disabilities. I hope this question isn’t either too controversial or too ignorant, but here it goes. Why do blogs by parents of what I would term "kids with disabilities" use the term “special needs” instead of variations on disability?

Is it because disability sounds too negative? Is it because schools now widely use the term “special needs”. Does it reflect a more complex re-conceptualizing of “disability” as just another form of human variation? Or, is there some reason for it that I might be totally unaware of?

I ask because as an adult, I use variations on the word “disability” to describe my physical impairments, which I have had since birth. When I’m being very specific and scientific, I might use “impairments”. When I’m feeling punchy or shooting the sh*t with other disabled people, I might even say “cripple”. I know of many adults with disabilities who take care to use person-first language … and others who don’t like person-first language at all. I also know of many disabled adults who prefer “differently-abled”, or some other self-consciously positive terms. They’re not my cup of tea, but lots of disabled people like it. However, I can’t imagine myself, or remember any other disabled adults using “special needs” to describe their own disabilities. Like, never. I’ve only ever heard the term used by family members to describe disabilities of someone in the family … or doctors, teachers, or other professionals to describe patients, students, or customers, and mostly just children, rarely adults.

So, maybe I have a second, related question for parents. If you use “special needs” for your child, do you think your child will use the term to describe his or her situation when he or she grows up? Or, do you think they might switch to disability, as they mature and have the emotional tools to develop their own positive, and realistic self-concept?

Obviously, I’ve tipped my hand here. I don’t really understand or relate to the term “special needs”. The thing is, I don’t despise it the way I do some other disability euphemisms, and I don’t really have a strong argument for what might be wrong with “special needs”. I guess I’m saying that I am open to persuasion, and would like to hear if there is a thought-out philosophy behind it.