CALL ME SENSITIVE: There’s Something Off about “Special Needs,” or Should I Say The New R-Word

Sasha Bogan ‘23

Staff Writer

 After being referred to as “special needs” on a random Wednesday by a random person at my college, I quietly uttered the words “Absolutely not… that is my cue to go.” I swiftly packed my bags and left the study room with a sense of urgency. I jokingly took to my social media platform to express the following “Whenever people refer to me as special needs I get the same wave of anxiety when racists use the term “the blacks” when discussing race. I can’t explain it but my intersectional intuition is telling me something.” Although part of me was joking when I made the post, another part of me knew that there was something strange about how society uses the terms “special needs” and other linguistic vernacular like “the blacks.” 

In a similar fashion, my stomach drops when people say things like “Make America Great Again” or “Let’s Get Back To Normal” in relation to the pandemic. Some people say it out of pure nescience but sayings like these were manufactured out of hatred and disregard for specific marginalized groups. When I posted my post, I was prepared to receive an abundance of hate comments as I frequently receive whenever I have an opinion. And I did. Angry ableds flooded my comments and messages to say things like “I call you what I want,” “everyone is so sensitive,” and “I will continue using special needs because that’s what you are.” How Sweet!!!

However, more importantly, I was surprised to see how many disabled people despised the term/label “special needs” as well. One user wrote, “I always felt this way I just never knew how to put it into words.” Another user stated “I also hate the term. Ableds had to find a way to refer to disabled people that makes THEM feel better.” 

The term “special needs” has many problematic layers to unpack, so let’s explore its origins. The time in which the term “special needs” was first used remains unclear.  However, the term became popularized around the mid-1960s, after the ruling of Brown V. The Board of Education. This ruling ended racial segregation in schools and it set the precedent that all people should have equal access to education. As a result, there was a push for disabled children to be integrated into schools which led to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act which was signed in 1975. Special needs began to be used as a euphemism in relation to the word disabled. However, according to the National Center for Disability Journalism, “the word special in relation to those with disabilities is now widely considered offensive because it euphemistically stigmatizes” (NCDJ, 2015, p.21). Other authors such as Simi Linton (1998) and John Woodward (1991)  “deem special needs a condescending euphemism, promoted by paternalistic “do-gooders””(Gernsbacher et al, 2016). I couldn’t agree more.  

The term “special needs” ignores the need for universal design and places abilities in a dichotomous box. It creates an illusion of “the other.” Disability needs are marketed as “special” when in reality it’s a necessity. It would be foolish to call an abled “special needs” for needing a boat to travel across an ocean or for needing glasses to see far distances. However, society indulges in this term to characterize stigmatized bodies and minds that are linked to disability/a non-normalized impairment. Surprisingly, the term “special needs” is also popular among ableds who have close proximity to disabilities such as disabled children, siblings, and/or students. They hide under the altruism of helping “poor special needs children.” Some ableds with social ties to disabilities do not always have the best intentions and still view individuals with disabilities as inferior and childlike. That explains their love for the term special needs and their anger when you point out its offensiveness. It has gotten so bad that we call people “special needs” because we have tied their survival needs to their identity. Overtime, “special needs” has become a term that is used to DDE: dehumanize, dispose and eradicate  individuals with disabilities.


The slurs “sped” (commonly used in non-poc communities) and “ed” (commonly used in poc  communities ) derives from the term “special education” which is used interchangeably with special needs. “Sped and Ed” is frequently used to humiliate an individual by comparing them to someone who has a disability. Specifically,  according to the urban dictionary,  ed is used to describe someone who’s retarded or does something stupid. For example,  I commonly hear the phrase “yo you ed for that” or “you look ed’ when ableds are interacting with each other or when they are antagonizing disabled people. This form of humiliation contributes to the dehumanization, characterization, and stigmatization that individuals with disabilities experience on a daily basis. 


It is safe to say that most special education programs have become the new modern day institutions (especially in low-income communities). As someone who was in special education  for some time as a child, I observed the culture of these programs. Most parents of disabled individuals dispose of their “beloved” “special needs” children by placing them in these day institutions. The same children that they leave in a room to acquire no skills or human interactions. As a result, they are more likely to get abused sexually, physically, verbally, and financially. To put that into statistics, disabled people are 2.5 times more likely to experience a violent crime compared to non-disabled people. According to the Center For Disability Rights, “more than 90% of people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual abuse in their lives; 49% will experience this abuse at least ten times” ( Morgan,  n.d.). Some disabled individuals in these day institutions even fall victim to poor hygiene protocols due to neglect resulting in rashes and other related diseases. The scary part is that a plethora of these programs promote themselves as being a great place for the  “special needs.”


As we discovered, special needs is simply the new R-word. It carries so much hostility, shame, and history. It is also commonly used among ableds who commit mercy killing to eradicate individuals with disabilities.They use the term “special needs” when describing their victims as a means  to garner sympathy and justify their barbaric actions. On average, every week a disabled person is murdered by their parent/caregiver (Ruderman Family Foundation, N.D). These criminal acts do not receive any news coverage and criminals receive little to no time in prison. Every year on March 1st, there is a “Day Of Mourning” in which the disabled community comes together to hold vigils and remember the lives of the victims who were wrongfully murdered.  

Disability Is Not A Bad Word!

Even though everyone has their own preferences, the majority of disabled people and disability rights organizations prefer the word “disabled” when speaking about the disabled community. I prefer the word “disabled” because it simply describes how we interact with society and how society interacts with us. Some disabled people may even argue that they are only disabled when faced with the barriers of ableism. Others argue they are not disabled at all. It was just a term given to them by ableds. Since our environment and culture were manufactured to disregard the needs of disabled individuals, our needs are often seen as privileges, burdens, and unnecessary. We have to find innovative solutions to not only help each other survive but to help ableds as well. This was most apparent during the pandemic when ableds mostly relied on disability survival tactics such as masking, and the use of Zoom classes. Then had the audacity to remove those options when they were no longer affected and decided it was time to go back to “normal”   resulting in the genocide of disabled individuals. 


Discrimination and lack of respect toward the disabled are normalized. I am not surprised by this. That is clearly given when the term “special needs” continues to be a popularized term  after decades of disabled people expressing their distaste for the word. What shocks me the most is the frequency of the disrespect. Slurs, inappropriate jokes, mistreatment, and inadequate representation (the list goes on) are mostly “worn out” because people with disabilities are the only identity-based minority group you can discriminate against and abuse without any genuine accountability. As a disabled person who started off in special education and formed connections with a wide range of people with disabilities, I am aware of the privilege that I have when it comes to entering non-disabled spaces such as higher education. In these spaces, I am often left to my own devices when it comes to including disability rights, culture, and etiquette in political and social conversations. We have been excluded from mainstream society for so long that my choosing to acknowledge the detrimental nature of the term special needs sparks controversy. When it comes to identity-based disability-related issues, it has never been in my nature to make my opinions palatable to anyone, especially non-disabled people.


Gernsbacher, M. A., Raimond, A. R., Balighasay, M. T., & Boston, J. S. (2016, December 19). “Special needs” is an ineffective euphemism – PMC. NCBI. Retrieved March 28, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5256467/

Media Coverage of the Murder of People with Disabilities by their Caregivers. (n.d.). Ruderman Family Foundation. Retrieved March 28, 2023, from https://rudermanfoundation.org/white_papers/media-coverage-of-the-murder-of-people-with-disabilities-by-their-caregivers/

Morgan, C. (n.d.). The Unacknowledged Crisis of Violence Against Disabled People – Center for Disability Rights. Center for Disability Rights. Retrieved March 28, 2023, from https://cdrnys.org/blog/advocacy/the-unacknowledged-crisis-of-violence-against-disabled-people/

National Center on Disability and Journalism Disability Style Guide. (2012). National Center on Disability and Journalism. Retrieved March 28, 2023, from https://ncdj.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/NCDJStyleGuide2015.pdf

Featured image courtesy of Access Now/Maayan Siv #NOTSPECIALNEEDS

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