When ‘Special’ Isn’t So Special.

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Monday, October 31, 2011

The term ‘special’ or ‘special needs’  has gained popularity among parents, school and social service  professionals, community leaders, and people who truly want to help and support people who were once under-served and overlooked.  But many people with disabilities or conditions object to the term ‘special’,  whether it applies directly to them or to their needs.

The term “disability” is a social/political term that was chosen by people with disabilities, ourselves (to replace ‘crippled ‘and ‘handicapped’); not by parents, not by teachers, not by service professionals.  We are people, students, shoppers, employers, and employers with disabilities, emphasizing the people or role first, disability second.

‘Disability’ is an honest word and is nothing to be ashamed of.  We should not be ashamed of our disabilities or differences.  All of us are different and tested in unique ways.  If one prefers, ‘challenges’, fine, but don’t use a word like ‘special’ that socially sets us apart while attempting to cloak our difficulties in a word that’s used for dessert treats, vacations, and people of particularly noble character or talent. I strive to be special in what I offer, not in what I lack.

Every invention,  product, service, policy, or procedure fills … or accommodates…a need.  In the end, everyone, across demographic classes, has ‘special needs’, don’t they?

Somehow many people without disabilities feel entitled to call us whatever they wish without consulting us. “We pay for or deliver your services, so accept the labels we confer upon you”. And yes, terminology does shape attitudes and it changes over time. But these changes must come from people with disabilities themselves. If a white person refers to a black person today as “negro”, that white person would get rightfully reprimanded very quickly.  Why do people feel entitled to refer to people with disabilities in whatever way they see fit without asking us?

The word ‘special’ and the phrase, ‘special needs’ separate us out in a socially undesirable way.  The average teenager, I venture to guess, would not want to be associated with the term ‘special’, whether as the person him or herself or as a friend of such. Kids, teens, and adults strive to fit in.  That’s why we ask for accommodations.  Providing accommodations for people with disabilities should be considered as expected and normative, not ‘special’. Accommodation and understanding the uniqueness of everyone should be considered the norm for the benefit of all.

Everyone is unique with unique challenges and needs, but each one of us should be expected to earn the word ‘special. ‘ Rashi is ‘special’ as a primary source for Torah learning;  Rivka Imenu (our fore mother) was special in her ability to take decisive action to leave her birthplace to join and safeguard the future of the  Jewish people;   Steven Hawking is special in the annals of physics, and Temple Grandon is special in the field of animal husbandry.

Please feel free to email your thoughts on this to views@yadempowers.org.  We may ask for your permission to post them.

Sharon Shapiro-Lacks, Founding Executive Director

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