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Special and Special Needs - Are These Labels Helpful or Harmful?

Published: 2021-12-01 - Updated: 2021-12-06
Author: Kathleen M. Cleaver | Contact: Disabled World (Disabled-World.com)

Synopsis: Article by Kathleen M. Cleaver regarding using the words special and special needs to describe children who are disabled or learn differently than their classmates. While special needs is an acceptable term when it pertains to children, many adults who are disabled find the word offensive when they are labeled as a person with special needs. While these labels entitle students to receive services important to their education, they can also foster resentment, misunderstanding and jealousy. In truth, all children are special.

Main Digest

Research Findings

Euphemisms are "expressions used in place of words or phrases that otherwise might be considered harsh or unpleasant" (Annan-Prah, 2015). Educational labels like special and special needs are considered euphemisms. Euphemisms have their benefits and drawbacks. Merriam-Webster defines special as " distinguished by some unusual quality; especially: being in some way superior. Section 300.39 of IDEA defines special education as " instruction designed to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability." While these labels entitle students to receive services important to their education, they can also foster resentment, misunderstanding and jealousy. In truth, all children are special.

Related:

When doing research for this blog, I found many interesting articles about using the words special and special needs to describe children who are disabled or learn differently than their classmates. The first article was in the Health and Wellness section of USA TODAY (June 11, 2021), 'I am not ashamed': Disability advocates, experts implore you to stop saying 'special needs' by David Oliver. Included in the article was a quote by Lisette Torres- Gerald, board secretary for the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities. She states:

"I am disabled by society due to my impairment. My needs are not special; they are the same human needs that everyone else has and I should be able to fully participate in society as much as the next person."

Researchers from a 2016 study found that people who are referred to as having "special needs" are seen more negatively than those referred to as having a disability. Andrew Furlong, a freelance writer with lifelong disabilities cautions us to "pay attention to the words adults with disabilities use most often. Some terms, like "special needs," are popular in certain circles, for certain purposes, but almost entirely irrelevant to actual disabled people who are old enough to have developed their own understanding of their disabilities. Very few adults refer to their disabilities as 'special needs,' which should maybe cause us to rethink using the term for kids and youth with disabilities." (Here Are Some Dos And Don'ts of Disability Language - Forbes.com: Sept. 30,2020)

What Is a Special Need?

According to Merriam-Webster a need is something you must have to survive. Special needs are any of various difficulties that causes an individual to require additional or specialized services or accommodations. Special needs is often used in education even though it is not a legal term and federal law does not use it as a euphemism for disability. While special needs is an acceptable term when it pertains to children, many adults who are disabled find the word offensive when they are labeled as a person with special needs. Currently, services, modifications and accommodations or adaptations for someone with a disability are often called special needs.

In special education, modifications are changes in content and skills students are expected to master. Adaptations are changes in the learning environment. These are educational and environmental needs. Some children have complex learning and medical needs. Modifications and adaptations are tools to increase accessibility for children and adults who are disabled. All children require tools to help them to learn and develop their strengths and interests. Adults require tools for work and independence. People who are disabled deserve these tools and adaptations to be included socially, motorically, and academically. Our daughter was given braces to help her walk and a wheelchair for traveling outside the home environment. Children who are not disabled have tools such as bikes, skateboards, and later cars to move about their environment. Sometimes, these "non-special tools' can be adapted and made accessible for someone with a disability.

My Personal Experience

Our oldest daughter is multiply disabled leaving her unable to walk and perform most daily tasks independently. She falls on the moderate to severe scale for her intellectual disability. She has been labeled special to those who meet her, mostly because of her hugs and bright smile. Yes, our daughter is special, but no more special than her younger "typically developing" sisters.. Just like her younger sister, our daughter can be sweet and cooperative; and just like her sisters, she can be defiant and uncooperative. People call my husband and me special and angels because of the love and care we give our daughter. For us, the angels are those who have helped and guided us in caring for our daughter. They are the people who offer respite to give us a break from the demands of parenting.

I taught in the field of special education. My certification was for teaching children with visual impairments. My students were children first. Their disability was secondary to who they were and what they could achieve. Yes, they were special, but so were their non-disabled peers. My students did not have special needs; they deserved the tools and accommodations to help them learn along with their sighted peers. As a teacher, I am no more special than a teacher who has to educate a "normal class'' of thirty children, all with different backgrounds, interests and abilities. I am proficient in braille and the use of low vision aids. Is that any more special than someone who can teach physics or calculus?

It is time not only to evaluate how we teach our children; it is time to look at how we label children. We can not change a disability, but we can change the perception of a disability. Some states are evaluating the special education label and promoting special education to be renamed exceptional education. Merriam- Webster describes an exceptional person as someone "having above or below average intelligence." This does not describe the many children and adults who are disabled and do not fall into the high or low end of the intelligence scale. As special educators, our mission is to make education accessible to our students who are disabled or have complex learning needs. Where the education takes place is dependent on the tools, modifications, adaptations, and personal assistance required for the student.

We need to be cautious of euphemisms, like special and exceptional, that sound pleasant but give the wrong impression to others. Listen to how adults with disabilities feel about labels. With all the changes in education we should change the name special education to accessible education, short for Accessible Education for Children with Disabilities and Complex Learning Needs. Special educators would become accessible educators. What do you think?

About Kathleen M. Cleaver

Kathleen M. Cleaver holds a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education and the education of children whose primary disability is a visual impairment (TVI). During her thirty year career as a teacher, Kathleen received the Penn-Del AER Elinor Long Award and the AER Membership Award for her service and contributions to the education of children with visual impairments. She also received the Elizabeth Nolan O’Donnell Achievement Award for years of dedicated service to St. Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments.

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Cite This Page (APA): Kathleen M. Cleaver. (2021, December 1). Special and Special Needs - Are These Labels Helpful or Harmful?. Disabled World. Retrieved January 17, 2022 from www.disabled-world.com/disability/education/special/kmc-labels.php