Many would say that my son Jacob, 27, has “special needs.” Jacob would never describe himself that way, although he will tell you he has Asperger syndrome. So because Jake and I, each for our respective obvious reasons, take an intense interest in the semantics of disability, I recently asked him why he thinks people so often apply to him a term that he rejects.
My boy sprawled his 6-foot-plus frame on the carpeted floor of my 9 by 12-foot office and fell to petting Ziva, our Sheltie who has arthritis (she’s a “special needs” dog, I suppose) as he offered his opinions on the subject.
Political correctness, Jacob said, can get in the way of people doing what’s morally correct. The term “special needs” is an example of this. When we’re being politically correct, we focus so much on what we call people that we don’t focus on who they actually are. Using this term, according to Jake, means that “you’re going out of your way to make them seem ‘other.”’
“This person has needs beyond the norms of society,” he said. “People who aren’t comfortable with that try to make it a label.” Then, because of the speaker’s discomfort, the individuality of the person so labeled disappears behind the “special needs” designation. The result is a generalization that does nothing to provide meaningful information about the person, but does much to create a barrier to human relationships.
Which brings up Jacob’s next point: that “special needs” is pitying and patronizing. He thinks that this is a “talking down” term. The assumption of “less than” is built into it, as if all people who are categorically lumped together as “special needs” are incapable of intellectual understanding, regardless of what one’s disability actually is.
“Special needs” is really just a euphemism for “disability,” we agreed. To be disabled, according to Merriam-Webster, is to be “incapacitated by illness or injury; also: physically or mentally impaired that substantially limits activity especially in relation to employment or education.” It’s a more authentic, less emotionally loaded expression.
Indeed, as a graduate student in the Developmental Disabilities graduate program at the St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, my peers and I were instructed about the appropriate language to use when talking about someone with a disability. “Why not just call it like it is!” my professor exclaimed. “The person we’re talking about knows they have a disability. Why couch it in euphemisms on the off-chance that the individual who uses a wheelchair doesn’t know they have a disability?”
Armed with this new idea I made it my business to use the word “disability” every chance I got. On conference calls and meetings with colleagues who spoke about serving children with special needs, I would make sure that my next comment included the term “children with disabilities.”
Is there a special word we can use to soothe our “what do we call them?” anxieties? Probably not. So let’s not try to make ourselves feel better about other people’s disabilities by calling them “special.”
Shelly Christensen, MA is one of the leading authors, speakers and practitioners of inclusion of people with disabilities in sacred communities. As Program Manager of the award-winning and cutting-edge Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities since 2001, she has successfully worked to change the culture in synagogues and the Jewish community. In 2009 she co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) with the Jewish Special Education Consortium. Shelly and her husband Rick are the parents of three sons, one of whom has Asperger syndrome. She has personally navigated the Jewish and secular communities with passion for meaningful participation by people with disabilities and their families.