This is why we must stop searching for ways to say 'special needs'

It was great to see that our recent blog, titled ‘We need to rethink the term 'special needs' - here's why’, on 20th July attracted a number of comments and provoked some well-informed debate amongst passionate people. This response inspired us to produce another explanation to clarify exactly why we think terms like ‘special needs’ can do much more harm than good and impose barriers to inclusion rather than reducing them. 

It might be helpful to break the term right down. We define ‘needs’ as what we as humans require to stay alive and live healthy lives. We could have a separate debate over what a list of universal human needs might contain, let us just say that everybody has a need for water, food, safety, shelter, care and love. Everybody has these needs; everybody has the same needs. ‘Needs’ are identical and universal. Are we saying that every single person is, therefore, the same? What distinguishes individuals is how they access these needs. This is what makes every single person different and ensures that no two people are the same. ‘Inclusion’ means proactively ensuring that everyone is able to access their universal needs. 

This is why terms such as ‘special needs’ or ‘additional needs’ used to describe disabled people are problematic. They ignore the reality that needs are universal. They label a group of people, who have exactly the same needs as everybody else, as different from what we consider ‘normal’, creating a division in our minds. They imply that people with impairments are awkward, difficult, expensive, easier to exclude. This language, which is recommended by government and socially accepted, demonstrates that we are not thinking inclusively, and even actively discourages us from doing so. 

These terms impose an identity on people that they did not choose. They allow us to define people by their impairments. People are grouped together on a false assumption that their needs are special or difficult, ignoring the reality that individuals within these groups all access their needs differently anyway, just as we all do. What is worse is that this language which emphasises difference from a norm, separates disabled people in our minds; we start to refer to them as ‘they’ because they are not ‘us’. This is not inclusive thinking. 

Any such term that we use to describe a certain group encourages us to think that the problem is with this group of individuals who have these supposed ‘special needs’. Really, the focus must be on the collective responsibility of society to be inclusive; to make sure that all individuals can access their universal needs in their own way. Society disables people – you and me – we are the problem and have this responsibility. Special needs style language stops us from removing the barriers to inclusion from society. It presents inclusive practice as a form compensation or something additional, not the norm that it must be. 

If we can agree that needs are universal but we access them differently; then we should stop searching for new terms that discourage us from thinking, and therefore acting, inclusively. The current accepted language is patronising and helps to reinforce attitudes that prevent inclusion. As long as the discourse is ignorant of the fact that society is responsible for disabling people, our thinking, which determines our attitudes, actions and policies will not become more inclusive.