Euphemisms Spread Stigma – Study on “Special Needs”

My son’s love of music is known across the multi-verse, specifically Hamilton and the band Flogging Molly (though yesterday he chose and danced to Alan Jackson’s, “5:00 somewhere”).  But before those were his favorites, he spent years delighted by the music of Laurie Berkner. She’s on twitter, sometimes we briefly exchange a few words, and I saw her calling for “special needs” kids for a video the other day, leading to this.

This was on my mind as I read about a new study by Morton Ann Gernsbacher (et al.) on:
“Special needs” is an ineffective euphemism (open access link to the full article). The article takes a long-held assessment by activists and scholars alike that “special” isn’t helpful, despite its popularity, and tries to form a quantitative analysis.

In a blog post on the study, Gernsbacher writes:

In addition to its negative connotations, we argued special needs is imprecise; it can refer to groups as unrelated as minority and bi-racial children in the realm of child adoption; middle-age adults and persons without personal transportation in the realm of disaster preparedness; and pregnant women and people with nut allergies in the realm of airline travel).

Special needs also connotes segregation. Most special programs (e.g., Special Olympics and special education) segregate persons with disabilities from persons without disabilities. Special needs also implies special rights. In our research article, we pointed to an OpEd in The Chronicle of Higher Education that misconstrues legally mandated disability rights as special rights, as well as similar misconstruals observed in common vernacular.

We concluded that special needs has become a dysphemism, similar to lame (e.g., a lame idea), crippled, blind (e.g., blind to evidence), and deaf (e.g., deaf to reason). Our research did not explore whether non-disabled people’s use of special needs is intentional (although some instances clearly imply negative intentionality). Perhaps, as Simi Linton suggests, non-disabled people’s ambivalence about disability rather than sharp repulsion underlies their use of the term special needs. Regardless of speakers’ and writers’ motivation, our research recommends not using the euphemism special needs and instead using the non-euphemized term disability.

So: People associate it with negative things, it’s imprecise, it connotes segregation, and it’s used as an insult.

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