Three Reasons to Say “Disability” Instead of “Special Needs”

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Three Reasons to Say “Disability” Instead of “Special Needs”

By Meriah Nichols

An adult with light skin tone and long brown hair smiles at the camera with their arm around a child. Child has light skin tone, brown bangs, and a hot pink jacket. Both are smiling and have their hands out in two fingered peace signs. Child appears to have a disability. 

1. People with Disabilities Want You to

In and of itself, this is really the only answer anyone should need: people with disabilities want you to.

Parents of kids with Down syndrome have been on a campaign to stop the use of the word “retard,” first and foremost, because people with Down syndrome have asked us to stop saying it. Regardless of how it makes sense or not to people, we ask that people “spread the word to end the word”—quit saying the “r-word.

Adults with disabilities ask that you say “disability” and not “special needs” when you are talking about disability.

“Disabled people should control the conversation about their disabilities, and the language used about them, not their parents.”
—Louisa Shiffer

Your child with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, deafness, brain injury, dyslexia, spina bifida, blindness, muscular dystrophy— all of it—every one of them counts as a disability, and adults from every one of those communities identify as being disabled.

That doesn’t mean every adult from those communities, just like not every adult with Down syndrome is asking you to quit saying the r-word; but enough of them, the majority of them, identify as having a disability, not a special need.

2. “Special Needs” as an Educational Term is Outdated

I myself hiccupped there. I thought that you could have a special need and not a disability— that is, that one could have an IEP for something not necessarily disability-related.

Wrong! It’s all disability-related if they receive an IEP. Anyone with an IEP has a disability; anyone receiving services or accommodation under section 504 or the IDEA has a disability.
Point blank. Call it what it is. Say the word: disability.

In the words of Lawrence Carter-Long:
“A need isn’t special if other people get to take the same thing for granted.”

3. All the Other Words Make Us Gag

“Handi-capable,” “People of all abilities,” “Different abilities,” “Differently abled” can be lumped together with “special needs.” They all sound patronizing, condescending.
And they are all inaccurate. “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.

Excerpted and used with permission by Meriah Nichols. View her entire piece at

Meriah Nicols is a counselor, solo mom to three (one with Down syndrome, one on the spectrum). Deaf and neurodiverse herself, she’s a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.

DRC-NH, in collaboration with the UNH Institute on Disability and the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities, distribute a quarterly RAP sheet to educate community members and policy makers about the latest research, policy, practice, and advocacy issues affecting individuals with disabilities and their families.


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