Have you seen the comments about people with “special needs”? You know, the ones where people point out that having “special needs” kids is a “gift” that makes us “stronger”, “better people” and is “so hard” but “definitely worthwhile”?
How about the conversations about how supporting an adult with “special needs” makes a person “heroic” and “patient” and “good”?
Yeah, me too. And I’m calling bullshit. It’s not true.
I get that people may be trying to be less offensive when they say a person has “special needs” than just coming straight out and saying disabled. I suspect they think they are being gentler and kinder by not using the word disabled. Again, I call bullshit.
Let’s talk about my glasses. I wear them because I can’t see properly. I am not allowed to drive without them. If I don’t wear them I can’t see clearly and judge distance or the rate at which an object is accelerating toward me. This is a disability in a society that requires me to negotiate spaces shared with fast moving 2 tonne objects in order to get around. It’s dangerous. I put my glasses on and these dangers are resolved. I don’t know anyone who thinks this is “special”, or even particularly cares about my need to wear glasses. Perhaps this is because it is a need I take care of that doesn’t inconvenience them at all.
Let’s talk about my challenges with verbal communication. I find it very difficult to have a conversation about anything important verbally. The way my brain processes language means I need a fair bit of time to think things through. If there is any sort of conflict or stress during the conversation my processing is slower. I can lose my ability to articulate the complex thoughts in my head, and might just agree with/to things I do not want to agree with/to just to end the conversation and be free to go and shutdown for a while. It can be dangerous. It is certainly inconvenient and upsetting. If I can have important conversations by email, message or text I can engage in a meaningful way in my own time, and the person I am talking to gets my honest, well thought through answers. Unfortunately, a lot of people have a strong preference for verbal communication, which means I expect (and have experienced) criticism and resistance (which is another way of saying my request is often ignored) when I ask for written communication. This puts me at a disadvantage. It is a disability. It is not “special”.
My glasses and my desire for longer processing time in conversations are needs. They are things that help me live my life well, safely, and in a way that allows me the same access to places and situations that people have who don’t need those things. They are needs I have because of the physical requirements of my body, and because the way society functions is not accessible to me if those needs are not met.
They are not “special” needs. They are needs I have because of disability. Saying it differently doesn’t change the fact. Saying it differently actually perpetuates the stigma around disability, increases the likelihood people will continue to see me as other and broken, and decreases the chance my needs will be met.
Too often proclaiming a person has “special needs” is the trigger for people to give up, asserting that sometimes there is “just no solution” and that the disabled person will have to “learn to cope” and “develop their skills” so they can “fit in to society” and “have a hope of getting a job and making friends”. When in fact there is always a solution that respects the rights of the disabled person, and we regularly live meaningful valuable lives as ourselves without having to change and fit in to societies unrealistic expectations and arbitrary rules of existence.
All people have needs. When their needs are met, all people live their lives well. All people receive help to see their needs met from time to time. Our society works on shared ideas, spaces and resources. Assisting a non-disabled person to see their needs met is not perceived as heroic, patient or inherently good. It is called living life in community.
Why is it viewed differently when someone helps a disabled person see their needs met? Why are the needs of disabled people seen as having a different value than others?
My needs are not special.
Now, if people wanted to say something along the lines of “being in close relationship with other people is a gift….we become stronger, better people by learning to exist in shared space with others while respecting each others needs and rights… living life in community is hard and valuable” I’d be totally on board with that.
But this discourse around disabled people being here to make the rest of society better people for putting up with us, and that our needs are somehow seperate from the needs of everyone else? That has to stop.
My needs are not special, they are just my needs, and I have the same right to have my needs met as any other person.