November 8, 2016


Mum explains why she thinks it’s time the damaging phrase “special needs”, and the mentality that goes with it, is put on the scrapheap.

Catia Malaquias from Starting with Julius explains, “the phrase “special needs” is commonly used as a euphemism to refer to a person with a disability (particularly intellectual or cognitive disability and more often than not, a child) or who otherwise functions in some way that is atypical.”

As a mum of a child (now 7) with Down Syndrome, Catia is certainly not oblivious to what this means.

“If you think about the use of the adjective “special”, it has become shorthand for describing places set aside for people with disability, e.g. “special schools”, “special education units”, “special workshops”, “special homes”, etc.  There are hundreds of websites and Facebook pages dedicated to people with “special needs” and the parents of children with “special needs”.  The phrase “special needs” is regularly used by the media – it is common language.”

Catia argues that for much of society the “special story” still goes like this: “a child with “special needs” catches the “special bus” to receive “special assistance” in a “special school” from “special education teachers” to prepare them for a “special” future living in a “special home” and working in a “special workshop”.

Does that sound “special” to you?

In the minds of many in our society a “special needs” label is effectively a one-way ticket to a separate, segregated, low-trajectory pathway through life.

The word “special” is used to sugar-coat segregation and societal exclusion – and its continued use in our language, education systems, media etc serves to maintain those increasingly antiquated “special” concepts that line the path to a life of exclusion and low expectations.

The logic of the connection between “special needs” and “special [segregated] places” is very strong – it doesn’t need reinforcement – it needs to be broken.

Further, the “special needs” label sets up the medical “care” model to disability rather than the social inclusion model of disability. It narrows and medicalises society’s response to the person by suggesting that the focus should be on “treating” their “special needs”, rather than on the person’s environment responding to and accommodating the person – including them for the individual that they are.


Catia goes on to say, “There is another insidious but serious consequence of being labelled (as having or being) “special needs”.

The label carries with it the implication that a person with “special needs” can only have their needs met by “special” help or “specially-trained” people – by “specialists”.

That implication is particularly powerful and damaging in our mainstream schooling systems – it is a barrier to mainstream schools, administrators and teachers feeling responsible, empowered or skilled to embrace and practice inclusive education in regular classrooms, and accordingly perpetuates attitudinal resistance to realising the human right to inclusive education under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In other words, the language of “special needs” leads to, and serves to excuse, a “can’t do” attitude as the default position of many general educators – it effectively deprives inclusive education of its necessary oxygen – a conducive “can do” classroom culture.

Further, and more fundamentally, the concept of “special needs” is flawed. There is no such thing as “special needs”.  A child with a disability has the same needs as everyone else – the same human needs – to be loved, nurtured, fed, educated, sheltered – to move, communicate, participate and belong etc.  A person may require more assistance in meeting a particular need, especially when their environment has been predetermined without regard for their disability, but they are still seeking to meet basic human needs.

The label of “special needs” is inconsistent with recognition of disability as part of human diversity.  In that social framework, none of us are “special” as we are all equal siblings in the diverse family of humanity.

I’m reminded of the 1969 hit song by The Hollies about a young girl’s surprised response to a stranger suggesting that her little brother was too “heavy” for her to carry – I think my son Julius’ sisters would be just as surprised – even indignant – to hear their brother referred to as “special”: “He ain’t special, he’s my brother”.

Do you agree with Catia?

Share your comments below.

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  • This lady does not understand what labelling is. Special needs is a tactful way to say someone needs more support than mainstream people do, it is far better than labelling them as being retarded, deformed, weird, crippled or disabled as they were called in the past.
    I had a serious brain injury nearly 20 yrs ago & was labelled a brain injured idiot by my then husband & that was because doctors & hospital staff told them I would need full time care in palliative care if I survived. My father said some time later ‘”it would have been better if she had died”. I was labelled before I even woke from a coma after surgery. (I will give you one guess to work out who caused it after I caught my husband cheating on me with my niece & a life insurance policy increased the week before I had my mystery blow to the head.)
    I spent 18 years fighting that label from my family even though I managed to raise my children, study, work & manage a household budget plus mortgage on my own after I divorced my husband. I gave up trying to prove them wrong recently & removed them all from my life because after a while you start to believe it. Personally I prefer to be referred to as someone with special needs than what I was cruelly called by people who should have been supporting me, yes I do have special needs in regards to some of the problems it left me with but definitely not the idiot I was made to feel like.
    When I studied in disabilities 10 years ago we were told to use the phrase “Special Needs” or “Person with a disability” to remove labelling or branding them. I think this lady needs to understand why we use that term & drop the persecution complex because Special Needs does not label nor define the person they are regardless of what disability they may have. Rant over!


  • I agree to a certain extend, but personally (having a child with Down Syndrome myself) I don’t feel the need to be so sensitive about that term


  • I have to agree that it’s a tactful way of saying that a child needs additional help without naming the condition for all to know. Some conditions the child would find extremely embarrassing if it was named for everybody to know, especially if it wasn’t obvious by appearance. There are many conditions that hinder a child’s learning or communication skills.


  • I usually use the term “additional” or “extra” needs.


  • I’m not in this lady’s shoes, but I don’t find the term “special needs” offensive or restrictive.


  • I think that she really needs to get over it. If not “special needs”, then some other word will be used to describe them. Everything offends everyone these days.


  • I love that last phrase, he ain’t special he’s my brother. So true!


  • I have a son with special needs, and I think it’s a reasonably tactful way to acknowledge his differences.


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