Well, Isn’t that Special?

My husband and I Zoom with our son’s school about his progress. My son is on the spectrum and has academic and behavior goals.

During the entire conversation, his teachers use the phrase special needs. I forcefully use the word disability.

Special needs is a term non-disabled teachers and doctors and parents use for disabled students. This term is used primarily when referring to kids with disabilities or those with cognitive disabilities. However, every now-and-then, special needs is applied to anyone with a disability, adults and children alike.

Of all the disabled people I know, and I know a lot, not a single one uses the term special needs. In fact, most of us hate it.

For years now, actual disabled people have advocated to stop using the term special needs. Often, the emphasis is placed on “special,” implying disabled people need special treatment. When in reality, equal access is what we need. And equal access is not the same thing as special treatment.

The term special needs also continue to stigmatize disability and disabled people. The intent behind using special needs was to destigmatize disability, but frankly, it does the opposite.

Using euphemisms like special needs or handicapable or differently abled do not normalize disability. These terms just perpetuate the deeply engrained idea that disability is bad, something to be ashamed of.

I’ve been blind for 17 years now. I’ve had an innumerable amount of people say to my face how awful being blind is. That living life as a blind person is no way to live life. Often, these are people close to me.

A friend once said they would rather have cancer than be blind.

Yep, to my face.

Countless family and friends say they could not be blind themselves.

Uh, keep in mind, I wasn’t born blind. I literally became blind overnight. Wasn’t magically in my DNA.

A family member told me I would never be able to take care of children.

Right, I have two kids now, healthy and safe.

One person told me I must surely want to kill myself daily.

Nope, not so much.

In a speech class I took during my undergrad, we had to conduct a survey among the class based on our topic. My topic of course was about disability. My peers knew it was my survey. They observed me participating in class daily, interacting and doing the work.

And yet, 98% of them marked living with a disability as the worse kind of life possible. Seventy-one percent said they would rather be in prison than live with a disability. Ninety percent said they would not be attracted to a disabled person.

What has steering the conversation away from using the word disability accomplished?

Using terms like special needs has not brought about systemic change. If anything, these terms crack the mythical able gap even wider.

The institutions insisting disability is a bad word do nothing to normalize disability. Disability is just a part of life. It’s not something to be feared. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not undignified.

Disabled people make up 25% of the population. We are the biggest marginalized group, because disability intersects with all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, abilities. Anyone can become disabled at any point in their life.

I became disabled as an adult after a prolonged illness. Many disabled people I know became disabled later in life. Or, like me, you can develop additional disabilities. I became blind in my 20s. Now, in my late 30s, I’ve developed chronic pain and fatigue. No matter what we do, disability will be a part of life. So, why do we refuse to normalize it?

Stop arguing with me about what word I should use to identify as a disabled person. Instead, advocate for equal access.

Stop using language with negative connotations to describe disability. I’m not afflicted with blindness. I do suffer when society refuses to acknowledge disability, perpetuating discriminatory practices.

Disability is not limiting. Society’s inability to imagine is limiting.

Disabled people’s needs are not special. Society’s unwillingness to normalize disability is special.

And as a famous church lady once said, “Well, isn’t that special?”

Here’s where I should apply my standard smirking face emoji.

By Imperfection

Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter is a mom and writer from Omaha, Nebraska but recently relocated to Urbandale, IA. When she’s not chasing children, picking up messes or reorganizing the house, she enjoys yoga or reading to relax. In her spare time (A.K.A. her dreams) she’s a Broadway star. Kuenning-Pollpeter is a freelance marketer during the day, a creative writer at night. Her work has appeared in the Brevity blog, The Omaha World Herald, 13th Floor, Misbehaving Nebraskans, Hippocampus, Emerging Nebraska Writers and Random Sample Review. She has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. Her essay “The Body” was a McKenna Fellowship finalist, and her essay “Imperfection” was a 2020 Best of the Net Nominee. She is blind and writes frequently about disability. She’s working on a memoir about the disabled feminine experience. With the kids though, expect it in stores in about a decade.

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