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Monday, October 10, 2016

(Written for The Jewish PressBuilding Blocks Magazine, September 2016)

“Special needs” terminology is insidiously poisonous.  This euphemism seems innocuous, but, in actuality, it corrodes and undermines the very strides for dignity, respect, and equality for which disability activists have crawled up the U.S. Capitol steps, effected the longest Federal agency sit-in in American history, and undergone arrests for civil disobedience at bus stations, legislative offices, and university campuses.  It keeps us, people with disabilities, separate (special) and in a disempowered position (needy) relative to others.  By referring to people with disabilities as “special needs populations,” society reinforces the charity (chessed) model of disability based upon neediness, a disempowering paradigm.

Need and Relational Inequality

Most people, especially in the frum community, are not familiar with the history of disability activism.  Historically, we have been perceived to be, and most often have been, in the position of being in need, dependent upon the kindness of our families and of strangers.  We have not been in control of our own lives and have been perceived as and treated like perpetual children (as evidenced by the title of this fine magazine, “Building Blocks”). This has led to a state of ‘relational inequality’.  Someone with “special needs” is by definition a person in a needy position relative to the other and is prone to be related to as such.  Disability activists rose in the 1970s to tirelessly fight against pity, paternalistic attitudes, discrimination, and to remove all barriers to full participation in society.  Identifying us in relation to our needs contradicts our strivings to elicit true respect for who we are and what we offer.

Owning Our Disabilities

Disability, in contrast to need, is a demographic attribute with no relational or interactional implications.   We with disabilities do however challenge the concept of normality and socially-defined notions of perfection.  We move, communicate, receive and process information, behave, or respond to social cues and environmental stimuli differently.  We are perceived as different and, yes, as having a disability relative to others, regardless of whether or not we need reasonable accommodations, assistive devices or technology, or human services.

This perception of difference has yielded eons of prejudice towards people with disabilities.  Millions of people with “hidden” or “obvious” disabilities worldwide have been shunned, hidden away, mentally and physically tortured, and murdered.  Even in the frum community, we have historically been kept behind bedroom doors, disowned, and sent to residential institutions, in part due to social ostracization or the fear of such.

In America, Jews, Black people, and Women have effectively fought prejudice by proudly owning their identities.  Akin to these groups, the Disability community, boldly claims its identity; the very identity that has marginalized us.  Furthermore, within the Disability community, we have Deaf, Autistic, Blind, and Mental Health communities, etc.  Each sub-community has its own identity with shared world-views, experiences, expressions, aesthetics, and frustrations. We embrace our disabilities.  Social stigma, prejudicial discrimination, and lack of access and accommodations are the common experiences that unite our sub-groups into a unified sociopolitical identity.  I am a Jew with a [physical] disability.  An identity-first Jewish disability activist would say “I am a Disabled Jew.” As a sociopolitical entity, we collectively acquire esteem, power, and influence in our strides to become integral to our communities.

“Special Needs” Undermines Our Respect and Power.

The term “special needs” is used to obfuscate disability.  “Disability” is a term that disturbs those who don’t know disability history.  But, in fact, “special needs” weakens us; it emphasizes our needs; thereby highlighting our reliance upon others.

Moreover, the term “special” not only sets our needs apart from others, but by extension, the person becomes “special” and differentiated from the mainstream.  How many times have you seen the phrase “special children” in this magazine as well as in other publications?   In psychology, this is called “reaction formation.”  A person who we once pitied or feared somehow becomes special, amazing, or saintly.  But in reality, we still pity or fear that person on some level.

Disability activists, including myself, call upon media outlets, such as the Jewish Press, as well as service providers, community leaders, and caregivers to cease using the terms “special” and “special needs” when actually referring to people with disabilities.  Let’s confidently own our hidden and obvious disabilities and bond together in unison to command respect from our peers who have not yet joined our demographic.


  1. Susan Sedarbaum-Werner says:

    I wholeheartedly agree! My adult son, who has a seizure disorder with resultant brain damage, has been searching for his place in the world – AND HIS PLACE IN THE JEWISH WORLD – for many years. At present, he is living in the only independent living (with State-funded services) community I could find. It is run by the ARC of Jacksonville, FL where I believe he is the ONLY JEW! The only programs offering these (AND MORE) opportunities are in ISRAEL! So what else is new?
    Might you know of other possibilities (Not in New York)? If so, please contact me. If any of your functions expand to the Florida area, I would be happy to participate.
    Thank you.
    Susan Sedarbaum-Werner

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