Another Unpopular Opinion post. Although, I should clarify that’s mostly unpopular in the non-disabled community. I rarely find disabled people who like the term special needs.
Growing up, I learned special meant something good. In fact, my dictionary says special is an adjective which means:
better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual
But in certain parlance, it doesn’t mean anything better or greater at all. It just means different – and not in a good way.
These terms have always rubbed me the wrong way.
As a GLBTQ+ person, those who were/are against us always complained that we were trying to get special rights for ourselves. No, we were trying to get the same rights that they had. Equal. Equal rights. We want the same thing that you all have.
The right to marry the person I love. The right to hospital visitation if something happens. The right to adopt children if I wish. The right to be seen as someone who matters. And so forth. The same rights heterosexual people have. Not more, not less.
Special Needs comes across the same way to me. As something different – different in a bad way. A wrong way. Something to be ashamed of. You make me feel dirty when you call me “special needs”. When you say I have “special needs”. When I hear you call others “special needs”.
But guess what? We all have needs. Your needs are very likely not the same as my needs. Or the same needs as your mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandparents, neighbors, friends, et cetera. Even if none of you are disabled. So why are your needs just needs and my needs are special? Why are you just a person, but I am a “special needs” person?
All of our needs are just human needs.
Definition of equal?
being the same in quantity, size, degree, or value.
What part of that says ‘better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual’ to you? Why is my value different (read: less) than yours? (And, yes, that is how we’re made to feel: less.) We get spoken over all the time. People ask non-disabled people what is best for us instead of asking us. We are not valued the same as non-disabled people. We are “special” but we are not equal. That has to change.
For example: GLBTQ+ people pushed for the equal right to marriage*. We didn’t ask for special rights. We didn’t ask for different rights. We wanted the exact same marital rights and protections that heterosexual couples were granted upon marriage. i.e. equal, not special.
When you send your child to school, you want your child to learn the same material that the other children are learning, yes? Disabled or not, no two children learn exactly the same way. Teaching each child the way they learn best isn’t special needs but common sense.
Did you know that there is math readiness (something I didn’t learn until well into my adult years) just as much as there is reading readiness. I thought I was incompetent in most maths until I was told about math readiness?
The K-12 school system I went through certainly never addressed it. Reading readiness, sure. Math readiness? Nope. Kids who could read early went into advanced reading. Kids who struggled with reading, were taught different ways to read; were helped on figuring out how to sound out words. There was endless help for writing and spelling.
But if math wasn’t your thing? You just got to be in the “slow” math class, where you may not cover as much material, but you were taught the same way as your classmates in regular and advanced math. (Psssst: This isn’t helpful.)
If your child has trouble taking tests in an environment with a lot of sound, distracting colors, smells, textures, et cetera, or trouble taking timed tests because they can’t read or process the material as quickly as their classmates, wouldn’t you expect that the school would allow them to take that test in a setting geared toward their test taking abilities, rather than just let them fail over and over again?
All that teaches children is that they hate school, or that they must be stupid** (speaking from experience). I felt stupid a lot. I was told I was stupid by a lot of people. It didn’t matter if my parents told me I wasn’t because my school experience told me otherwise. You hear something enough, you believe it. (This is how you can teach people to hate people who are different from them too, by the way.) I have 2 degrees and smart is still not a word I would immediately gravitate towards to describe myself. When people tell me, “Wow, you’re so smart!” I feel like they must be making fun of me. Or trying to be nice. Even when it’s people who I love; people who I know would never, ever be anything but sincere when they tell me that.
By the time I graduated high school, I’d certainly had some great teachers who really cared, but they were not the majority. One of my science teachers told me I was too stupid to be in his class. A guidance counselor told my Mom I’d never make anything of myself and that she needed to force me to register for classes which were actually worthwhile. (She didn’t. And she pretty much told him off and to leave me alone.)
My opinion is that experiences like the ones I had are just one of many that can lead to internalized ableism. Ableism is discrimination against disabled people in favor of those who are not (i.e. those who are, or who are perceived to be able-bodied). Just like a gay person can have internalized homophobia, a disabled person can have internalized ableism.
Although I was ashamed, and often afraid, for years (and sometimes still) to tell people that I’m GLBTQ+, I somehow escaped the trap of using gay as a slur. I never called someone (or myself), a fag, dyke, homo, or any other word that refers to a GLBTQ+ person in a derogatory manner. But like so many of us, words like ‘stupid’, ‘special’, and ‘moron’ roll of the tongue, often without a second thought. They’re a staple of most people’s vocabulary.
I’ve come across so many GLBTQ+ people who loathe the term special rights, but have no qualms against saying they ‘have special needs children’. Why is it awful for one concept but not for another? I don’t understand. Either everyone’s needs are special (disabled or not) or no one’s are (disabled or not). They’re just each individual person’s needs.
Speaking without thinking, without understanding, and hearing without listening, has become very common place. Perhaps changing the words we use is the first step to making our ‘special needs’ just needs.
What do you think? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.
*I am referring to GLTBQ+ people in the USA. The Autistic Octopus recognizes that GLBTQ+ people still do not have many rights (not just the right to marry) in far too many countries.
**I do not like or advocate using the word stupid (or a variety of other terms), but I use it here to try to make a point and explain how it was for me in school. I will write a different post at a later time about usage of certain words.
Note: Although my blog is new, I’ve been writing things I wanted to share for awhile. I wrote this post almost a year ago. I had written well before I saw this video (re: Down Syndrome, #notspecialneeds). It says, I think, what I am saying, in another way. Plus, it gives you some great visual examples too. Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNMJaXuFuWQ