Why “Special Needs” is Not Helpful

Why “Special Needs Student” is not the preferred lexicon

I was asked by a friend to share a memo I had drafted awhile for several presidential campaigns about why a majority of the disability community finds the term “special needs” offensive. I want to be very deliberate in giving credit to all the folks who have helped inform this brief resource guide, including Meriah Hudson Nichols, Lawrence Carter-Long, Jamie Davis-Smith, Alice Wong, Vilissa Thompson and others.

There is a whole campaign by disabled people, typically organized under the hashtag #SayTheWord (https://www.npr.org/…/02/25/468073…/disabled-just-saytheword). It crosses diagnosis, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. and the argument it makes, is that as people with disabilities (or disabled people) our NEEDS aren’t special. We need the exact same things that nondisabled people need, to eat, to sleep, to live, to thrive, to engage in society and more. There’s not a need you have, that a person with a disability does not. Our needs maybe more complex, or require skillsets the ableds don’t have (such as ability to cut through pages of bureaucratic morass, the ability to deal with patronizing ableist microaggressions), but they’re still just basic needs.

  1. Special needs was not a term developed by the disability community. We chose “disability” whereas a majority of disability euphemisims, “special needs,” “differently abled,” “physically/mentally/emotionally challenged” “handicapable” were all developed by NONDISABLED people, educators, and family members. (https://www.meriahnichols.com/3-reasons-say-disability-ins…/)



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Rebecca Cokley

Rebecca Cokley is a philantropic buffalo, 3 x Obama Appointee, writer, pundit, & activist who doesn’t believe anyone should wait over 30 yrs for civil rights.