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Why I Don't Like How We Use the Term Special 'Needs'

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I’m a special educator, and for the last 20 years I’ve been living in Karachi, Pakistan, where I serve the special needs community. It’s a profession I chose, and I’m fortunate to live in a place where my work is greatly appreciated. Although it’s challenging, the part I find most difficult is that I’m constantly being put on a pedestal. It’s common practice that people here will come up to me and say how lucky the children are to have me or how lucky the families of special children are that I chose to live in this country. The more I hear it, the more it makes me feel uncomfortable.

I started to tell myself it’s only because I’m doing this work in this part of the world. But then during my recent visits back home, I realized that even in the U.S., people responded the exact same way to my work. This got me thinking, and I came to the conclusion that over the years, we’ve used various terms to refer to children and adults with disabilities, and now we seem to have universally settled into using the term special “needs” due to its broad and self-explanatory nature.

But I have a problem with that term. I’ll tell you why.

I think the word “needs” refers to someone who is lacking, weak and in “need” or wanting. A “special needs” parent is also put in this category because they’re always searching for professionals, doctors, therapists and educators. Then these “givers” — the people who can fulfill the needs of the child — are ultimately put these on a higher pedestal.

I, on the other hand, believe there is no one stronger, braver and more courageous than these families. We — myself included, professional or not — are the ones who need to spend time with these children, their parents and their families. We need to slow down, pause, struggle, pray, fail a few times so we can truly appreciate what life is all about.

Patience, unconditional love, hope, gratitude, supporting and believing in each other.

All families with special children are living testimonies of these virtues. If anyone, really, has needs, it’s us.

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Originally published: February 24, 2015
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