#SayTheWord, Not “Special Needs”

Autism, Disability, Education, Neurodiversity

There’s a social media campaign going on right now to #SayTheWord – it was started by Lawrence Carter-Long, the Public Affairs Manager for the National Council on Disability, and is an active Twitter hashtag. The word, of course, is disabled.

The importance of this campaign is driven home to me over and over again as I see people performing ludicrous and painful contortions to avoid saying it. Reminder that when I make a criticism the way well-meaning people interact with disability, I am not attacking the people (parenthetical reminder that I was immersed in ableism myself not long ago), but inviting people to think about things in a different way.

Instead of saying disabled, nice people say things like:

  • differently abled
  • handicapable (yes, really)
  • physically/mentally challenged
  • special needs

It’s that last one, special needs, that I really want to take aim at, because I believe that seemingly innocuous phrase does serious damage to disability rights.

Every time someone says “special needs,” they reinforce the false notion that disabled people are asking for “extras” when they require accommodations, modifications, and/or support to access the same things that non-disabled people are able to access, such as education, public spaces, community involvement, and so on.

That’s the first problem, because access is not “special” for disabled people. It’s their right. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects disabled Americans from discrimination, requires all to be accommodated in the workplace, and grants disabled people equal access to public spaces and institutions. Other countries have laws in place to protect disability rights in similar ways.

The second problem is, the phrase “special needs” flies in the face of the social model of disability. The social model says, the disabled person’s inability to access things is due not to the disabled person’s failings, flaws, or deficits, but on the environment’s failure to provide access to the things. For example, a Blind person is not disabled because they can’t see, they are disabled because the world was set up by seeing people for seeing people and is made of many things that are inaccessible to non-seeing people.

To make a metaphor of it, imagine taking a brand new car and submerging it in a lake. The car is disabled; there’s nothing wrong with the car itself, it still does everything it’s designed to do, but it cannot operate in its current environment. If were in an environment well suited to its needs and purposes, like say a road, it would be able to do all the things a car does.

Or, take a look at this short (1 minute 26 second) animation explaining the social model – it has captions for those who have auditory processing or hearing disabilities.

So, when you say “special needs” instead of disabled, you are saying, this person needs all sorts of special things to help them do what we can do. We, the people who designed the buildings, the curriculum, the programs, the services, so that they are tailored to our needs – we don’t need anything special to access those things. Well of course!

Some people shy away from the word disabled because they feel that it’s stigmatizing. (Some people feel the same way about the word autistic.) But you don’t remove stigma by dancing around it and being coy and hush-hush about it. That actually increases stigma. Disabled is not a slur and never was; it’s a neutral description. I believe that the truth is people are not just uncomfortable with the word, they are uncomfortable with disability itself.

Disability is a normal part of human diversity; somewhere around 15-20% of the human population is disabled. Like other forms of diversity, the presence of disability in the world enriches humanity in ways that we probably can’t even imagine. Being disabled is not something to be ashamed of, and it’s not something to be scared of; it’s just a fact of life.

I #SayTheWord because I believe that only by saying it over and over again, with pride, with confidence, can we accept disability itself. Say it with me.

(Another great post on this topic is Disabled? I Am Legend! by unstrangemind. And if you are on Twitter, be sure to check out the #SayTheWord hashtag, which is full of excellent.)

buy me pizzaImage says “#saytheword / eisforerin.com / disabled not ‘special needs'” on a blue background.

18 thoughts on “#SayTheWord, Not “Special Needs”

  1. In addition to the points you make, I don’t like the term “special needs” because it’s a euphemism. “Special” is a positive thing. Your birthday is your special day. Your boyfriend or your girlfriend is your special friend. Being special is an honor.
    Having a disability is not an honor, and using language that suggests otherwise doesn’t make it so. It smacks of Mr. Rogers or Barney the dinosaur saying in a sickeningly cheerful voice, “Don’t think of yourself as having a disability. Think of yourself as SPECIAL!” It strikes me as an attempt to infantilize us while simultaneously tricking us into thinking that disability is an honor.


  2. “Differently-abled,” especially as a twice-exceptional person, suggests that I have a mitigating factor for my disability (autism, ADHD, depression, and anxiety). It plays into the whole “You’re gifted and able-bodied, so you can’t be disabled” kind of thing.


  3. OMG handicapable? really?

    I had never really considered the awfulness of “special needs” until my autistic daughter (sarcastically) called me out on it aged 4, I learned myself damn quick!

    It sums up my whole experience with the UK education system where the correct support and access is provided in arrears, in limited amounts, according to finances, after tribunals, not sure how any kid feels so special…

    Hence happily home educating 🙂 x


  4. The term dates back to education schools as well as the child welfare system (in which all children eventually gain the label, since older children still in foster care are considered special needs). It was supposed to encompass every student whose needs could not be met by the “regular” educational system – and included gifted education. At some point, like so many other words, it began to be used as a pejorative. That’s more to do with the ableism endemic in our culture than the choice of the word, though the cookie-cutter approach to education isn’t exactly helpful.
    Example of gifted education included in special education: https://www.naset.org/giftedandtalented2.0.html
    Note on this page where it says that all older children in the foster system are special needs by definition:
    However, I would say that all of it is to dance around the offensive terms such as “disabled,” “medically fragile,” and such. As far as older children in the foster system, I would imagine that just having been in foster care or in an abusive home for many years could in many cases lead to at least emotional issues.


  5. I love this discussion, and I support the #SayTheWord campaign. I do not have any major disabilities, so may I ask a question to those of you who do? Is there a difference between saying “disabled person” and “person with a disability”? The argument for the latter term is that it is your legs or your eyes or some aspect of your psychological makeup that is disabled, not you yourself. Saying that you are a “disabled person”, the argument goes, is the same as saying that your personhood is disabled, which is, of course, offensive and not true. How do you see it? Is it an important distinction? A minor offense? Or not an issue at all?


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