I have had to really think about my answer to this question – Is it OK to use the term special needs?
People can be really mean sometimes.
People can be really kind sometimes.
This pretty much sums up what I have learned about the internet as a blogger.
I delete inappropriate comments without responding. I try to help anyone who seems like they may need it and I hope I communicate how grateful I am for the massive support and encouragement I feel from you, my gracious readers.
But every once in a while, there’s a comment that I just can’t shake. Like the time someone said I was prostituting my sons. Or the time someone said I should’ve done the world a favor and not had children. These types of comments require time to calm down, have some perspective. (It’s a part of blogging. Period. I get it.)
Recently, I came across a comment that was not overtly mean. It did not threaten my children or call me a bad mom. But it has been hard for me to let go.
“You say special needs way too much. You are labeling your poor children when you do that and it’s not fair. You should say differently-abled or something. “
Is It OK To Use The Term “Special Needs”?
I understand the intent (although, for the record, I think judgement is never a good way to inspire change) and it got me thinking.
Is it OK to use the term “Special Needs” when referring to my children (or any child for that matter)?
The definition of “special needs” is, according to Google Dictionary –
Particular educational requirements resulting from learning difficulties, physical disability, or emotional and behavioral difficulties.
Special needs is a term that originated in the educational system to denote children that literally had “special” or unique education requirements.
I could argue that all children, when we look at them as individuals, have special or unique educational requirements and that part of motherhood is figuring them out – but I won’t.
The truth is, I just don’t have the energy to worry to about all of this.
Whether or not the needs are special, my children have needs that require a lot of me.
What Disability Advocates Prefer
Although I have not understood why the term is offensive, I now see that it is for many.
Here is what I wrote just four years ago about this very topic.
My desire is to encourage and support moms, no matter what the needs of their children, and communicate that we are not alone in this. I try to do this with every single post. I also want to make you laugh if I can, to make up for the seriousness of it all.
In order to achieve this, I have to find language that makes sense and can be easily understood by all of us.
Special Needs is a catch-all that I use to define the differences in my boys’ bodies and in our lives.
I do not see it as derogatory, although I know it can be and is used in derogatory ways.
The words themselves are never the problem. It’s the heart and intent behind them.
For example, Mother Teresa, referred to the developmentally disabled and mentally ill as “mental.”
No matter what she called them, she served and loved a typically shunned group of people without bias. The heart was pure, even if the words might offend.
We Need To Change Our Language
Words matter. I would never want to communicate that I think otherwise. Often, I receive emails from adults on the spectrum that are concerned about language used or references made to mothering a child with autism. As a matter of practice, I typically delete anything that could potentially be offensive.
Because I am not on the spectrum. I cannot possibly tell an autistic adult what they should and should not be comfortable with – in fact, I hope they tell me so that I can better understand.
Because of this, I no longer feel the same way about the term “special needs”. I want to acknowledge what so many are saying and respect the wishes and needs of a community that I love and desperately want to be an advocate for.
“Special Needs” In My Home
My children are both comfortable with “special needs” and don’t connect it to any judgement.
My youngest has even used it to describe the pets he wants to adopt.
“I want to help all the animals that have special needs and need me to give them special care.”
I love this.
For my sweet boy, special needs immediately denotes care, not an assessment of ability.
Perhaps it should for us all.
Shawna Wingert is a former training and development professional turned education specialist, and has homeschooled her two children for the last ten years.Shawna has written four books about homeschooling unique learners and has been featured in homeschooling discussions on Today.com, The Mighty, Simple Homeschool, My Little Poppies and Raising Lifelong Leaners.
You can find her online here at DifferentByDesignLearning.com.