Why We Say 'Disability,' Not 'Special Needs' - The Mighty Explains
The Mighty Explains is an ongoing series covering important topics related to mental health, chronic illness, and/or disability. As with any subject involving the health community, you will find differing opinions on the issues being discussed. When making editorial decisions, The Mighty prioritizes the views and voices of people who live with health conditions. Each article in this series is written by one or more Mighty staff members or Super Contributors who have relevant, lived experience with the topic, in consultation with our editorial director. This article was written by: Karin Willison.
“Special needs.” It’s a phrase you’ve probably heard a million times. Special needs kids, special needs parents, special needs schools. The term is everywhere — but in recent years, the disability community has spoken out, asking people to stop saying “special needs” and calling for replacing this now-outdated language.
As a media website and community that centers the voices of people with disabilities and health conditions, The Mighty phased out the use of “special needs” in edited, published articles beginning in 2017. If you’ve submitted a story to us in the last few years, you might have noticed that we changed “special needs” and other similarly-problematic language before publication. In this installment of The Mighty Explains, we discuss some of the reasons to stop saying “special needs” — and what to say instead.
Reasons to Stop Saying “Special Needs”
Saying “special needs” contributes to disability stigma.
“Special needs” is a euphemism, a phrase created to avoid some other word or concept that is considered negative. Euphemisms aren’t always problematic; I think most of us would rather say “bathroom” than “place for peeing and pooping,” for example. But using a euphemism means you are trying to hide or downplay the unpleasant nature of something. And in the case of “special needs,” that something is disability.
The term “special needs” only exists so that people don’t have to say the word “disability.” It allows non-disabled people, especially parents and educators, to avoid describing children as having a disability — because they view disability as something bad. But disability is not inherently bad. It’s a natural part of being human. One in four American adults has a disability, and everyone who lives long enough will become disabled. Some disabilities can be debilitating and life-threatening, but people who live with them should not be stigmatized. Disability is a neutral, factual word that does not need to be replaced by anything.
Saying “special needs” when you mean “disability” denigrates part of a person’s identity, which can be particularly damaging for children. Many children with disabilities struggle with low self-esteem because they know their families are grieving that they are not “normal,” and their peers may avoid or even bully them. It’s hard to accept yourself when the people around you are saying through their actions and language that part of who you are is not good enough.
Parents can help their children grow up to be strong adults by using accurate language and teaching them to be proud of who they are, disability and all. Parents of children whose intellectual disabilities may limit their understanding should still use respectful language, as presuming competence is essential, and other children and adults with disabilities are also affected by the words we use, not just those in our families.
Disabled people and disability organizations have been outspoken in their opposition to the use of “special needs.”
The #SayTheWord campaign was created by Lawrence Carter-Long, Public Affairs Manager of the National Council on Disability to encourage people to say “disabled” and acknowledge the power of disability culture and identity. It has become a popular hashtag on Twitter and helped to spread the message that disabled people don’t need to be erased with euphemisms — we need to be heard, respected, and accepted.
The National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication publishes a Disability Language Style Guide for journalists and media outlets, which states in part, “Avoid using these terms [special needs] when describing a person with a disability or the programs designed to serve them, with the exception of government references or formal names of organizations and programs. It is more accurate to cite the specific disability or disabilities in question. The term ‘functional needs’ is preferred when a term is required.”
The term “special needs” is used to mock and bully people with disabilities.
In 2019, The Mighty’s then-Parenting Editor, Ellen Stumbo, wrote about the use of “special” and “sped” (short for special ed) as an insult at her daughters’ school, in the article Is ‘Special Needs’ the New R-Word? Adults often use the word special in a sarcastic tone, too. You read it aloud in your head like that just now, didn’t you? Calling someone “special” in some contexts now suggests they are spoiled, entitled, and/or not very bright. These are, not coincidentally, stereotypes that are often applied to children and adults with disabilities. We are often viewed as spoiled and entitled for defending our rights, and incapable due to perceived or actual intellectual disabilities.
A 2016 study published in the journal “Cognitive research: principles and implications” found that “persons are viewed more negatively when described as having special needs than when described as having a disability or having a certain disability, indicating that special needs is an ineffective euphemism.” This disproves the notion that saying “special needs” is somehow more polite or more positive than saying “disability.”
Words related to disability frequently end up on the “euphemism treadmill.” They start out as polite or neutral medical terminology, but become pejorative over time because of how pervasive ableism is in society. Humans frequently turn words related to intelligence and physical ability into insults, as if having limitations in these areas is the worst thing that could ever be true of a person.
The term “special needs” is well on its way down the euphemism treadmill, but “disability” is not. Of course, language is always evolving, and it’s possible that “disability” will be replaced by something else in the future — but for many reasons, that’s unlikely. Disability is the word used in the vast majority of laws that protect people’s rights, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s a word the community supports and defends. It’s the word we should use.
People with disabilities have human needs, not special needs.
This hilarious awareness campaign created for World Down Syndrome Day a few years ago shows exactly what’s wrong with saying “special needs.”
People with disabilities have the same needs as everyone else — food, housing, healthcare, education, etc. The difference is not in what the person needs, it’s in how their needs can be met. This is an important distinction that affects how children are perceived. If they have “special needs,” they need things other students don’t get, and other kids, parents, and society in general may judge them negatively for getting “special treatment.” If they have a disability, the conversation can instead focus on how to help them be on an equal footing with other students.
It’s also important to note that the vast majority of disability “accommodations” either make things more accessible to everyone or have no impact whatsoever on those who do not need them. For example, a building entrance with a step is inaccessible to some people, but one with a ramp is accessible to all, as people without a mobility disability can use ramps too. Using captions on TV and movies helps people who are hard-of-hearing, and those who can hear can still enjoy the dialogue. Replacing timed exams with final projects or papers assigned weeks in advance means many students with disabilities won’t need to ask for extra time, and non-disabled students can complete the same assignments.
There is nothing inherently special about disability. That is not to say we shouldn’t celebrate disabled people who have accomplished great things — of course we should. But the mere fact of having a disability does not make someone “special.” Disability is extremely common, yet people with disabilities are routinely singled out as “special,” as needing “extra” things, as being an inconvenience at best and a burden at worst. If we want to create a society in which accessibility is the norm, where inclusion is built in and differences are celebrated, it starts with changing our language. And that means relegating “special needs” to the dustbin of history and embracing “disability” as the affirming word chosen by the people it represents.
How The Mighty Is Handling This Change
The Mighty, like the rest of society, has evolved when it comes to disability language. Many of our early contributors/writers were parents of kids with disabilities, and described their children as having “special needs.” In 2016, we began developing new editorial standards to ensure that parents and family members were writing respectfully about their loved ones with disabilities. For example, we won’t accept stories in which parents go into detail about potentially embarrassing topics such as a child’s personal hygiene or behavioral challenges — unless the child is able to understand and consent to publication. We realized these standards needed to include language as well, and so we now replace “special needs” with appropriate terminology such as “disability,” “chronic illness,” or “mental health condition” before stories are published.
You may still see the term “special needs” used in older stories on our site, but when we find them, we add a note at the top about outdated language that includes a link to this page. Many of these older stories are otherwise great, and remain valuable resources, so we don’t want to remove them, but we do want people to know they contain words we don’t use anymore.
You may also see “special needs” used in Thoughts. Thoughts are user-created posts that do not go through our editorial process, and therefore may contain language that is not in line with our editorial standards. We have moderators who can take action if people post abusive or extremely harmful Thoughts, but using “special needs” and other outdated terms does not put a Thought at risk for deletion.
You may see “special needs” used in direct quotations, such as in a news story, or in an organization name, or as part of a legal concept, such as special needs trusts. And of course, you may see it in articles that explain why it’s problematic, such as this one.
“Disabled” is not a bad word, and children with disabilities have human needs, not special needs. We’ve updated our vocabulary, and we hope you will, too.
Learn more about disability and respectful language by checking out these Mighty stories: