We need to rethink the term 'special needs' - here's why

"Special needs" has become a term that is used to describe people with impairments but we believe it has become a term which is further disabling people.

As we have said in previous blogs, Disability Africa establishes programmes which recognise a view of the Social Model of Disability - we believe that it is society that disables people rather than their impairment. This is why terminology is so important. Terminology and language shape our thoughts, they reflect our attitudes and affect our actions. 

"Special needs" is a patronising euphemism. Special, by definition, means "better, greater or different from what is usual". In reality, 'special' in the context of "Special Needs" is a disingenuous use of the word. What people seem to mean when they say 'special needs' is that people with impairments require more attention, they are more expensive to care for and are more difficult to provide for than those without impairments. So what is the result? A situation where people with impairments are excluded because they have "special needs" they are more difficult than those without "special needs".

However, in reality, we all share the same needs. Everybody requires water, food, shelter and love, in order to survive. In parts of Africa, we have seen disabled young people who have been isolated. They have had no food or drink and no love. These people are not special, their needs are the same as all of ours. 

Despite the fact that the vast majority of people (including me) use certain terms with the very best intentions, sometimes it is counter-productive. Merely labelling a group of people - disabled people - as "special" implies they are recognised as being far different from everybody else. The consequence of this is that they will be treated differently, ensuring that the stigma (which exists in all cultures to varying degrees) remains. This is the opposite of inclusion, despite the fact that inclusion is often the aim when using the term "special needs". 

Terminology and language are so important: once we separate people in discourse and our minds, we then start to separate people in practice. History shows us that this is a dangerous thing to do.