Language around disability is a really tricky thing. Some terms are acceptable to some people and completely unacceptable to others. Some are fine for disabled people to use amongst themselves or to refer to themselves but problematic when used by strangers. And there are times when disabled people argue amongst themselves about the terms. People first language and identity first language are two of the biggest culprit’s there.
One term that I’ve been saying I don’t like and arguing against for the last few years is “special needs” I can explain why I don’t like it but it’s something I find others always agree with although some people do come to see my point after I explain even if they don’t agree with me. Basically as a disability specific term it makes no sense.
For the last few days I’ve been reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon. I finished it this evening and it’s safe to say it’s one I’ll be thinking about for a fair while. The main character is Christopher, a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m not qualified to comment on his portrayal – I liked him as a character but I’ve heard and read various things from people who are on the autistic spectrum that it’s quite problematic. Which unfortunately isn’t that unusual when a disabled character is in a book.
But that’s not what I wanted to blog about.
There’s a moment in the book when Christopher is talking (as narrator) about the term “special needs” and it basically sums up what I’ve been saying about why I don’t like the term. It was a big “yes!” moment of validation for me. So instead of explaining my dislike I wanted to share the quote. It’s one of those that if I was sharing a link to it on twitter I’d probably just caption it “this.”
“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have learning difficulties or that they have special needs. But this is stupid because everyone has learning difficulties because learning to speak French or understanding Relativity is difficult, and also everyone has special needs, like Father who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him getting fat, or Mrs Peters who wears a beige-coloured hearing aid, or Siobhan who wears glasses so thick they give you a headache if you borrow them, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs.”
– From The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (chapter 71, page 56)