Who Has Special Needs?

I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard the term ‘special needs’ or when it was first used to describe me. It’s been a persistent presence throughout my life – from when it was used about me to its use in the professional settings in which I work.

I always found it a bit confusing – I knew it meant that I was different from other people in my class, and that it was why I sat at “bottom table”, and got to draw pictures while other people wrote stories. I knew my school said they couldn’t meet my ‘needs’ and that was why I moved to a different one, had extra lessons, and needed a teacher to walk next to me when we went to the library. I knew it was a term that adults used meaning one thing, but when my peers used it, it meant something very different.

Then, when I was nineteen, I started working for Contact a Family, an organisation that supports disabled children and young people, and their families. As part of my training we talked about language relating to disability. We were given lists of words and phrases and had to say if they were acceptable or not. Some sat in a murky middle ground. ‘Special needs’ was one of these.

And almost two decades on it’s still there. While ‘special educational needs’ is still used in schools and other educational settings, ‘special needs’ is generally considered to be out-dated and unhelpful in most contexts. The fact that it lingers on in some schools adds to the confusion, and in my view perpetuates its use. I think the reason why some people use ‘special needs’ is because it sounds gentler and maybe more child-friendly than ‘disabled’.

I’m keen for everyone, particularly teachers and parents, to understand why certain terminology is encouraged (and some not), and the thinking and politics behind this. I know from my own experience the positive impact this understanding can have on how you think about yourself and what to expect from other people.

In the Contact a Family training session the instructor explained that ‘special needs’ didn’t make sense because as human beings we all have the same needs, both basic and more complex – the need for air, food, water, shelter, sleep, education, family, health, friendship, respect, security, achievement etc.

These needs are the same regardless of who you are, what age you are and whether or not you have a particular condition or impairment. Some people might need more support than others to meet these needs but the needs themselves are not special.

‘Special needs’ very firmly identifies the person who’s different as the problem – their needs are ‘special’ because there’s something wrong with their body or mind. This fits into very traditional ways of thinking about disability known as the Medical and Charity Model, both of which focus on what’s wrong with a person and not on what support that person requires.

I describe myself as a disabled person because I believe strongly in the Social Model of disability. This understands that it’s normal for people to be different and normal for some people to have particular conditions or impairments. People are disabled by environments and systems when difference isn’t thought about in in the way they’re organised, or when someone’s support requirements are not met.

To say that children with particular conditions or impairments are disabled doesn’t diminish them in any way. It doesn’t mean they’re any less able than anyone else, but it does acknowledge that they’re likely to experience disabling barriers in their lives. They don’t have ‘special needs’ – they just need environments, activities and approaches that work for their minds or bodies.

It’s only if barriers are acknowledged that can they be overcome, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to get involved in removing them. It’s not a task we can ever complete – it’s a process that we should all engage in every day.

The medical and charity ways of thinking are deeply embedded in our society, what we see on TV, and in the media. I want as many people as possible to get a chance to understand disability from the social model perspective – particularly people raising a child who’s likely to experience disabling barriers.

I think people sometimes feel unsure about whether they can say they’re disabled, or whether particular conditions count as disabilities. Disability isn’t a club and there isn’t a register. If you or child have lived-experience of barriers resulting from how your body or mind works you can choose to identify as disabled if you wish to.

For me, saying I’m a disabled person makes me feel strong. It means I can help with finding solutions, be part of a vibrant community of people with shared experiences, and act in solidarity with them.

How people choose to identify is totally down to them but I wanted to write this to share my perspective and to help counteract the barrage of negative messages we get about disability.

The ideas at the heart of the social model aren’t hard to understand. For example you can read here about how my friend Laura’s daughter Ruby, who’s four, instinctively uses the social model.

Scope have a great page that explains how to use the Story of Winnie the Witch and her cat Wilbur to explain the social model to a child (or adults too).

Of course every child and person is unique and special for all sorts of reasons, but their needs are not. If you’re a parent or carer raising a disabled child you might find my Essential A to Z useful and there’s this set of posts for anyone raising a child with Tourettes.

I’m passionate about sharing the social model because it can help us create a society that doesn’t try to change people or make their bodies or minds conform – instead it helps us build communities that include and work for everyone.

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