I Hate “Special Needs”

Of course I don’t hate so called people with “special needs”; I hate the label “special needs”.  I’m no fan of other forms of “politically correct” language (for example, visually impaired, partially sighted, or people with disabilities).  But at least I can understand the motivations behind employing these terms.  The word blind (to the uninformed) connotes the complete absence of sight.  I would rather expand the widely-accepted meaning of the word blind, but I get the motivation behind introducing a term that suggests an inability to see very well without being completely blind.  Similarly, I understand the desire to want to emphasize that the physical variation isn’t the entire person.  I don’t like the way the phrase “people with disabilities” implies that the person possesses the disability rather than it being imposed by social factors, but we do wrong if we fail to acknowledge anything more about a person than the physical variation that results in disability, and “people first language” is trying to address that wrong.

That said, I can’t find worthwhile motivations behind the use of the term “special needs”, and I strongly reject the sentiment expressed by the term.  What it implies is that there is a group of people who possess a set of needs that differ from… differ from whom? From those who are normal I suppose.  What is overlooked by this attitude is the ways in which social factors (e.g., power and status) can shape needs and determine which ones get marked off as “special”.

In this article on women in Parliament, the author talks about a case of a woman missing a vote in 1993 because she was searching for a women’s washroom.  Eventually, the large men’s washroom off the lobby was converted into separate washrooms for men and women.  This seems to me like a case of special needs that parallels disability cases; yet few would call it that, and rightly so.  It’s obvious that the problem was with the way the building was constructed, that it was constructed only with men in mind.  I suspect very few would regard the conversion of the men’s washroom as a reasonable accommodation to meet the special needs of women, and yet if a washroom is constructed without consideration that occupants may use wheelchairs, this is exactly the attitude that is often taken.  As in the case of the women’s washroom, we should view what are often considered accommodations not as alterations necessary to meet the special needs of some, but as recognition and rectification of discriminatory initial designs.

The motivation behind this mild rant is last Monday’s episode of CBC Radio’s morning news program, The Current. During one segment of the program, the topic of inclusive versus special education was discussed.  The host of the program, Anna Maria Tremonti, continually used the term “special needs”, as did several guests.  Not surprisingly, those who favoured the term tended to view the debate as one over the duty to accommodate, pitting the “special needs” of some students against the ability of fellow students to learn effectively.

I wrote to The Current shortly after the program aired to explain why the term “special needs” was inappropriate, and I suggested, as above, that this is really a matter of having designed the education system such that it discriminates against a variety of students.

My letter apparently failed to have an impact — as evidenced by the follow up discussion that took place on Thursday, November 4. Special needs continued to be the label of choice and little attention was again given to the discriminatory design of the education system.

If you agree that “special needs” is an inappropriate term that shifts focus away from the social factors by attributing the special need to the person, then you can write to The Current to let them know that the term is offensive and shouldn’t be used.  Or better yet, you can write to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission CRTC to explain that the term “special needs” is analogous to, and is as offensive as, the racist and sexist language that is no longer considered acceptable.  I don’t know if saying something will lead to change, but I’m sure that saying nothing will result in no change.

Marc Workman


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