Why ‘Special Needs’ Needs To Go

Do we need to slay the phrase ‘special needs’?

Everyone is special or so we are told.

Education is obsessed with special needs yet there are those that argue we have got to stop calling particular needs as ‘special’.

Really? Yes, really. Watch this video to find out why.

So what we are really talking about is human needs not special needs and to use the language of ‘special’ really isn’t that helpful. It’s a bit like the really unhelpful approach of trying to differentiate a lesson 30 ways.

Disabled activists argue that special needs to go because it is ‘cringe-worthy’ and in its place we need to use the word ‘disabled’ instead. Disability is not a dirty word.

Meriah Nichols (2019) in her article says that special needs is an outdated term when what we should really be saying is ‘disabled’ and reclaiming it. She argues that special needs has a softer sound to it and doesn’t sound quite as stigmatized as ‘disabled’.

Nichols argues that we need to say disability with pride and remember that other terms have just been forced on others,

“Handi-capable”, “People of all abilities”, “Different abilities”, “Differently abled” and “special needs” were made up outside of the disabled community, by people without disabilities. Their continued use, and the defense of their use by people without disabilities reeks of able-splaining; that is, people without disabilities explaining disability to people with disabilities.

Call it what it is – disabled and don’t dance around it. That’s what disability rights activist Emily Ladau says also in her article arguing that “disabled” is for her the most straightforward, simplest and least offensive way to refer to what her body can and can’t do.

If you are a human, you have needs. Everyone has needs. What makes mine so “special” just because I have a disability? Nothing.

Don’t call me special

Special needs is a term we hear all the time in education and yet it is really inappropriate and unacceptable as it adopts a medical model of needs. Pushy parents can be partly to blame.

Coordinated by long-time disability rights campaigner, Richard Rieser, the UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) says,

Medical model’ thinking about us predominates in schools where special educational needs are thought of as resulting from the individual who is seen as different, faulty and needing to be assessed and made as normal as possible.

As cited in Gernsbacher et al (2016), founder of the Centre for Disability Studies (CDS)Professor Colin Barnes has “campaigned to replace special education with inclusive education, replace special educational needs with unmet educational needs, and replace the euphemism children with special education needs (SEN) with the non-euphemized term disabled children.”

The difference between the ‘social’ and the ‘medical’ or individual model of disability has to be clearly understood and that has to start in schools.

A good place to start learning more about the social model of disability is here and for greater discussion, including  emancipatory disability research then go to Barnes and Sheldon (2007).

A useful table is provided by UKDHM:

Medical Social in school

Copyright © 2020 World of Inclusion Ltd

So special needs isn’t something educators should be using. Why? Research by Gernsbacher et al (2016) say,

We propose that special needs is an ineffective euphemism because it is imprecise, it connotes segregation, and it implies special rights; special needs has become a dysphemism.

Reading and links


Leave a Reply