This is the second blog advocating against the term “special needs” that I’ve posted on the New Normal blog. I’m writing a second article on this subject because I’m speaking on behalf of the majority of disability activists who agree that this term actually defeats our cause. I will take every opportunity to discourage its use until it’s no longer part of our vocabulary, because “special needs” separates us out from the mainstream (special) and it reinforces the charity model (needs) against which the disability community has been struggling for many decades.
If any person, without proof of some sort of impairment or medical condition, could claim that she or he has special needs and request extra time on exams or subsidized tutoring, go to the front of the line at Disney World, or receive customized seating at work just by asking, there would likely be little objection to the term “special needs.” In this case, anyone could claim to have special needs in any given situation. However, using the phrase “special needs” is problematic when it is actually a code word for “disability.” It creates “relational inequality” between people with disabilities and people not yet considered disabled.
My husband, Yisroel Lacks, LCSW-R, coined the phrase “relational inequality” based upon the transactional analysis model of psychotherapy, “… wherein each social transaction is analyzed to determine the involved ego state (whether parent-like, child-like, or adult-like) as a basis for understanding behavior.” For example, the relationship between two adults is ideally adult-to-adult and between children, child to child. We can occasionally choose to seek nurturance from a friend or a spouse (child-to-parent) but, in general, adults relate as adults, and children as children on equal, give and take, and cooperative terms.
Once we attach the word “need” to an individual or population, the relationship between individuals or populations is altered. We are no longer describing a characteristic such as gender, race, or disability. Instead we are describing a state of being — the state of being in need. Infants or young children are understood to be needy and vulnerable. Adults, who are understood to be wiser and more capable, take care of children’s needs and determine what is best. Similarly, adults or children with “special needs,” or worse “special needs adults or children,” on some level are considered to be needy or vulnerable, akin to young children who need care and oversight. People with disabilities want to and should be related to as decision makers and contributors; not people in need of help, support services, guidance, or direction.
Special needs terminology is insidiously poisonous. It seems innocuous, but it corrodes and undermines the very strides for dignity, respect, and equality for which disability activists have crawled up the U.S. Capitol steps, effected the longest Federal agency sit-in in American history, and undergone arrests for civil disobedience at bus stations, legislative offices, and university campuses. We, the disability community, advocate for access and opportunity up until this very day with strength, leadership and determination as a social-political body; as people who have or are perceived as having the characteristic of disability. We are discriminated against because of our disabilities — our physiognomic or physiological compositions that affect function, behavior, or social interaction — and the accompanying misguided belief that we place undue burden upon society. By referring to “special needs populations” we are reinforcing the charity model of disability based upon anticipated neediness (placing us in a child-like role), the cause of much prejudice.
Let’s proudly own and teach our children to proudly own disability as a characteristic and a demographic that deserves respect and recognition for what we contribute.
Sharon Shapiro-Lacks, Founding Executive Director of Yad HaChazakah – The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Inc., envisions Jewish communities where people with obvious or hidden disabilities are sought and valued for the strengths they bring. In her vision, leaders and community members will want to improve physical, communication, and attitudinal access to shuls, yeshivas, batei midrash, workplaces, shops, and family life — not only for the benefit to specific individuals, but also for the enrichment of entire communities. She has worked in the disability policy and human services arenas for over 25 years.