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Archive for November 2011

            We’ve all heard the term “special needs” before. It tends to be used interchangeably with the word “disabilities;” and is often used to refer to people with conditions such as autism, Down’s syndrome, or physical disabilities.

            However, the website Dictionary.com defines “special needs” as “the special educational requirements of those with learning difficulties, emotional or behavioral problems, or physical disabilities.”  This means that children with ADHD also fall under the category of those with special needs.

            When I first learned as a child that the term “special needs” applied to me, I was surprised. I did not understand why I was put in the same category as children in wheelchairs or who had below average IQ’s. There was nothing wrong with me physically or mentally, so why should I have to go to the Resource Room or be put in the “Special Needs” bunk at camp? True, I had trouble paying attention in school and I wasn’t great at math or sports, but doesn’t everyone have weaknesses as well as strengths? Why was I singled out for special education when others were not?

            I also find the word “special” to be condescending. Think about the other times that you hear someone or something referred to as “special.”  A birthday is a special day. Your boyfriend or your girlfriend is someone special. A menu at a restaurant lists the special entrees of the day. You get dressed up for a special event. When celebrities make cameo appearances on TV shows, they are the special guest stars. “Special” doesn’t merely mean being singled out; it means being singled out in a positive way. Being special is an honor.

            This is where the term “special needs” becomes problematic. It’s not an honor to take the mini bus to school. It’s not an honor to be on an IEP. It’s not an honor to take Ritalin. It’s not an honor to go the Resource Room or to meet with a school counselor or to be pulled out of class every other year to be re-evaluated. And while I can’t speak for people with other disabilities, I’m sure they’d agree that it’s not an honor to wear a hearing aide or use a wheelchair or a cane.

            Advocates of the term “special needs” argue that its positive connotation is much more encouraging than the term “disabilities,” which has a negative connotation. Yet no matter what words you use to sugarcoat the language, it doesn’t change the fact that there are certain things that we can’t do or that we have trouble with.

            So where does the term “special needs” come from? Why did educators choose such a term? Was it yet another instance of political correctness gone overboard; or an attempt by well-meaning professionals that backfired?    

            Not really. In order to understand the reasoning behind the term “special needs,” we have to take a look at the way the world was back when the term was introduced. So fasten your seat belts, because we’re about to go back in time! (pause for cheesy music)

         In July 1972, the Massachusetts legislature passed a law that dramatically changed special education. This law, Chapter 766 of the Acts of 1972, was the first law that guaranteed that all children, regardless of ability or disability, were guaranteed a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Chapter 766 served as the model for the Federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was passed in 1975 and guaranteed similar rights to children throughout the United States.

            Chapter 766 was a groundbreaking law in many other ways. It was the first special education law that included parents in the decision-making process. It was the first law that called for children to be educated in the least restrictive environment. Prior to the passage of 766, children with disabilities might be warehoused in state institutions where they were not receiving education. Children who were blind, deaf, physically disabled, mentally retarded (now called “intellectually disabled”), or emotionally disturbed were only eligible for special education if the school committee found them to be “educable.” There were separate laws and provisions for each category of disability, and children with more than one type of disability did not fit into any of those categories. These children did not go to school at all, but were kept at home.

            This changed under Chapter 766, which introduced a new term, “children with special needs.” This new term referred not only to children with visual, auditory, physical, mental, and emotional disabilities; but also autism, learning disabilities, health impairments, speech disorders, and yes, ADHD. Children who had more than one disability also fell under the term “children with special needs.”

            Rather than the category of the disability determining what services children were entitled to under the law; all children with special needs became legally eligible for special education services under the new law. After a child was evaluated to determine a diagnosis, a team including the child’s parents and teachers would prepare an educational plan (now called an Individualized Educational Program, or IEP) to determine what type of educational services the child would need according to his or her special needs.

            While Chapter 766, as well as the laws of other states and the Federal laws that followed, have opened doors of opportunity for children all over the country, unfortunately the term “special needs” has evolved to become as much of a stigma as the terms it was intended to replace. Almost immediately after the passage of 766, people began to use “special needs” as an adjective rather than a noun. For instance, they would incorrectly refer to “special needs children” instead of “children with special needs.”  Sometimes, people would even go so far as to refer to them as “special children,” which makes me shudder because it is so condescending. 

                Back in 1972, it made perfect sense to choose the words “special needs.” The type of schooling that these children received was referred to as “special education,” just as it is today. Also, Chapter 766 and similar legislation at both the Federal and state level marked a shift not only in laws, but also in society’s acceptance of people with disabilities. For the first time, children with disabilities were given the opportunity to learn and to achieve in ways that they were denied before. Today, many people with disabilities have gone on to lead happy, successful, productive lives and are able to hold meaningful jobs and contribute to the community. People with disabilities, who once would have been institutionalized or denied access to education, graduate from high school, go on to college, get degrees, get married, buy houses, and have children. They are veterinarians, authors, professors, scientists, musicians, clergy members, teachers, and architects. None of their achievements would have been possible without the shift in society that viewed them as people first, not merely “the handicapped” or “the disabled.”

            Now, as we are well into the second decade of the third millennium, the world has changed even more. This is why I believe it is time for another change in terminology. I’d like to propose the term “specific needs.”

            This term is neither positive nor negative, but neutral. It reflects the value of a society that views people with ADHD and other disabilities as neither better nor worse than everyone else, but simply different.
            What are your thoughts? Please comment below.

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