Changing the Use of “Special Needs”

From the perspective of a mother with a child who has a serious and rare medical condition, Pfeiffer syndrome. 

There are many reasons why the term “special needs” can have a negative connotation. For one, when somebody randomly comes up to talk to you about your child and they use the term, “special needs,” they are already assuming a lot about them. They are telling your story; they are stereotyping and putting a label on your child. Realistically, they are probably assuming all of this because of what your child looks like.

Without our personal heartfelt stories people assume a lot of things about our children that are not true.

Each child has a special story, each child is different, and each child has so many beautiful things about them that make them unique. Putting a label on a child closes doors and makes people blind to the deeper things and the truth about them. The solution is to listen, watch and learn. My advice is get to know children with serious medical conditions and your world will grow. These children have so much to teach us because even though they have to face obstacles constantly they are the happiest and sweetest little angels. Take the time and you will quickly realize that there is a hero that lives inside each one of these children.

The term “special needs” could be limiting our children. If our children are hearing this label used to describe them, we are teaching our children that they are not equal and that they are “different.” Seriously, we are all different and our differences are what make us beautiful.

Just to put things in perspective, the smartest man alive has a serious health condition called ALS, he is almost completely unable to move. Have you guessed who? Stephen Hawking. The lesson here is not to put limits on a child.  Honor them and their strengths. Most of us know who Stephen Hawking is. Would you categorize him as “special needs?”I think the first word that comes to mind is “genius.”

People ask, as if it was okay and the norm, “is your child special needs?” This term has become so commonly accepted that people don’t question anymore what it could mean to a family or a child that is struggling with serious medical conditions. But I bet they would struggle to ask, “What are your child’s medical conditions?” because maybe in this situation the words are clear and they can’t help but realize how insensitive of a question this could be. Yes, “special needs” has developed into a term that for some reason people feel like they can just use without thinking about how it might make somebody feel. There is no filter just because it has been so freely used and accepted.

Let’s not encourage this term, we don’t have to conform.

Really, we all have “special needs.” Here is the unfair thing, let’s suppose there is a child that has a severe heart condition, they wouldn’t necessarily be labeled “special needs.” Why? Because “special needs” is very much associated with physical appearances.

Here is something else to think about: In the adoption world the term “special needs” is extremely broad, it can mean many things. You are considered “special needs” if you are a child that is harder to place for adoption. You are considered “special needs” based on your race/ethnicity for example. So adoption agencies have their own definition of what “special needs” is? Interesting.

What on earth is “special needs?” Such an unclear and unhelpful term; it tells us so little, and yet we assume so much by the use of this term.

The term “special needs” has also been linked to people with social or behavioral struggles, like autism. To put things in perspective, Temple Grandin, a brilliant professor of animal studies and a super interesting lady has autism. She has changed the way livestock are handled in this country and has made a huge impact within the autism community. There is a great movie about her; watch it and you will be inspired.

Aspergers is a type of autism. Look at who has been speculated to have Aspergers Syndrome: Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Emily Dickinson, Isaac Newton, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Mark Twain, Michelangelo, Thomas Jefferson, Vincent Van Gogh, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and so on. These are geniuses who have changed our world in big ways.

Again my point is to not limit our children by saying they are “special needs.” Look at these prodigies. Who wouldn’t want to have the minds of these people?

By the way, just the word, “special” sounds pitiful. Forget the unpleasant and belittling term “special needs” to describe someone. Why not describe the kids that undergo many health, social and behavioral challenges as “warriors”, “rock stars”, and “fighters,” instead of “special”.

Another thought- what about the people who use the term “special needs” while trying to be empathetic by telling you that they know somebody that is “special needs” too? There is still no need to say “special needs.”

You can be supportive just by doing acts of love (like being kind, pointing out the strengths in each person, smiling, etc.) and by treating people like everyone should be treated, equally. I think mothers with kids who have medical, social or behavior challenges are generally open to talk about things as long as they initiate the conversation and it is their terms. This would be the ideal situation, no need to ask or say unpleasant things.

Wait until the time is right and the parent or guardian speaks up; if they really want to tell you something they probably will.

Finally some might argue that the use of “special needs” is necessary for the government, organizations, donors, schools, etc, to be able to help kids with medical, social or behavior issues. These entities need to identify how much extra help someone might need. In the case of schools, it can mean funding an extra classroom aid to help children in the classroom or on the playground. The answer to this is that we can have kids that are IN “special need” classes just like our children can be in other classes like; art, music, the gifted program, ESL, etc. Let’s be clear, it is just a class/program, nothing else. This way there can still be funding.

But, fight with me to demolish the norm of classifying a kid as A “special needs” kid.

There is a difference between being IN “special needs” and being “special needs” children. Say no to our children being labeled, A “special needs” child. The people that are being most affected by this term are the children that are being labeled this way. Fight for change!

It is simple and it doesn’t consume time from your day. It just requires a little effort on our part to make the conscious decision to be sensitive to what terms we use and how we use them, knowing that it can affect our children. Words are powerful and I strongly believe that changing the term “special needs” can make a difference.

Read Carolina and Mariana’s story here. Let us know what you think about the term “Special Needs” in the comments.

Carolina3About the Author, Carolina: I was born in Medellin, Colombia. I have lived in the Seattle area since I was 8 years old. I went to the University of Washington for my undergraduate degree in Theoretical Math. I am a certified Refit Revolution dance instructor, artist, actress, and the Founder/CEO/President of ‘Born a Hero, Pfeiffer’s Health and Social Issues Awareness’ nonprofit organization. Most importantly I am a stay-at-home mom and all my life revolves around my faith in God.

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