Our data suggest that special needs has already become a dysphemism (a euphemism more negative than the word it replaces). Special needs will likely become a slur, if it is not already, and it might eventually become a dysphemistic metaphor, akin to dumb, lame, crippled, deaf, and blind. These linguistic transitions, along with the data reported here, recommend against using the euphemism special needs and instead using the non-euphemized term disability.
Disability has been called by many names. Perhaps one of the most commonly used, and the most indirect, way of labeling disability is with the term “special needs.” I heard that term a lot growing up, and I never liked it, but I couldn’t put my finger on what I disliked about it. Perhaps it was that the phrase was often used in a condescending way, to signify difference or special treatment, or to refer to a segregated place like a “special needs classroom.”
When I started doing inclusion work, I was thrilled to hear fellow self-advocates sharing my dislike for the term “special needs” and advising that we just use the term “disability” instead. We can debate linguistic reasons why one term is better than the other, but ultimately, I’m interested in using the term that is most likely to lead to positive, inclusive interactions with nondisabled people. So, I was fascinated by a research study comparing how a dults in the United States (most nondisabled) judge individuals when they are labeled as having a disability vs. having special needs. (Full article is linked at the end of this post).
Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison designed an online study where participants read through six scenarios. In each scenario, they had to rank-order their preference to partner with four different individuals. For example, in one scenario the participants read descriptions of four potential college roommates and ranked them in order of whom they would prefer to room with, while in another scenario, they rank-ordered four potential basketball teammates, and in a third, they rank-ordered possible partners for a cooking class. The researchers randomly shuffled the scenarios for each participant, so that each participant saw one scenario where one of the potential partners had “special needs,” a different scenario where one of the partners had “a disability,” and a third where one of the partners was labeled with a specific disability (randomly assigned to be either a sensory or a neurological disability). Besides the disability labels, the partner was described in an identical way for all participants. The researchers looked at the participants’ rankings and calculated, across all the participants and scenarios, how often the partner with special needs/a disability/a specific disability was ranked last.
By random chance, each partner should be ranked last about 25% of the time. So when a particular partner was ranked last more than 25% of the time, this signifies discrimination. Indeed, when the partner was labeled as having “a disability,” discrimination occurred, with the partner being ranked last 33% of the time on average. Discrimination also occurred when the partner was given a specific disability: across the different types of disabilities, they were ranked last 35% of the time. But the worst discrimination occurred when the partner was labeled as having “special needs.” Under that condition, across scenarios, they were ranked last 40% of the time. Statistically, partners were significantly more likely to be ranked last when they were labeled “with special needs” than when they were labeled either “with a disability” or with a specific impairment.
At the end of the study, the researchers also asked the participants to write down the first five words that came to mind when they saw the term “special needs” and the term “disability.” They categorized the responses and found that when the participants were thinking about “special needs,” they wrote down more negative words like “annoying,” “helpless,” or “needy” than when they were thinking about “disability.” In contrast, when thinking about “disability,” the participants wrote down more positive words like “strong,” “capable,” or “acceptance” than when they were thinking about “special needs.” In addition, the term “special needs” was associated more often with intellectual/developmental disabilities, whereas the term “disability” was associated more often with physical impairments. So, it is possible that some of the bias observed could reflect the heightened prejudice and stereotyping against people with intellectual and developmental disabilities compared with physical and sensory disabilities.
What’s wrong with saying “special needs?”
The researchers postulate three reasons why “special needs” might evoke more discrimination than “disability.” First, the term “special needs” is imprecise. When someone is labeled as having “special needs,” it is unclear whether they have an impairment at all, or how severe that impairment is. So, people might assume the worst, or feel uncomfortable with the ambiguity. Second, “special needs” is often associated with segregation: Institutions like “special education,” “special needs classrooms,” or “Special Olympics” are all, by definition, segregated to only serve disabled people. The phrase “special needs” may implicitly justify segregation, giving segregated institutions the praise of being “special” while implying that people who attempt to be included in the broader community (e.g., applying for a college roommate in an integrated dorm) do not belong. Third, the researchers cite examples of “special needs” being conflated with “special rights” or “special treatment.” The term “special needs” may activate feelings of envy that nondisabled people sometimes direct toward disabled people whom they perceive as unfairly taking “special” privileges.
Perhaps a phrase is just a phrase. And, what really matters is how we treat one another. But, this study shows that phrasing does matter. People can discriminate in very real ways based on first impressions, and when one person is described verbally to another, initial labels can set a powerful tone for those first impressions. This may be especially true when a parent or caregiver is speaking for a disabled person-someone who is too young to speak for themselves, or needs communication support. Describing such an individual as “having special needs,” even with the best of intentions, could make it harder for that individual to be accepted or valued in community settings, be it a daycare center, a sports team, a school, an adult recreation program, or a job.
In recent years, disabled people have pushed to replace the euphemism “special needs” with the straightforward term “disability.” However, many nondisabled people, particularly parents, educators or caregivers of disabled people, cling to the term “special needs.” This has resulted in another polarized debate between disability “insiders,” advocating language that they have claimed as identity-positive, and “outsiders” using language that is personally comfortable for them. A more disturbing development is the widespread use of the phrase “special needs parent,” which nondisabled parents may use to describe their own identities or experiences without regard to their child’s identity or language preference. While nondisabled parents certainly should be able to share their own experiences raising disabled children, it is important that they are sensitive to the complex history of ableism, including the ableism captured in language. As the researchers point out at the end of their paper, phrases originally intended to be euphemistic-like “special needs”-can eventually become “dysphemisms,” words with more negative connotations than the words they are replacing. Like other disability terms, “special” is even being used as a generic insult. Rather than just trading out euphemisms every few decades, we must work to stamp out the underlying biases and stereotypes that lead us to want to use euphemisms in the first place. Disabled people, including those with intellectual/developmental disabilities who are frequently stripped of their voices, must be front and center in that process.
Read the full study here