Is the Term “Special Needs” Going Out of Style? Rethinking the Terminology in Light of the Law

Q. I have three children — two on the autism spectrum and one with Down syndrome, who we adopted. One of my children with ASD is a young adult, and the other is a teenager. My friend, Cathy, also has an adult child on the autism spectrum. I read your article last week and found it to be very informative. I shared it with Cathy, and she agreed. In her response, though, she told me that the term “special needs” is no longer used because some people find it to be offensive. Do you know why this is happening, and what should be used instead? Thanks for your help!

A. In doing research for last week’s article, I came across the same information that Cathy shared with you — that the term “special needs” may no longer be politically correct in some circles, as it is offensive to some people, and possibly even harmful. Is this political correctness run amok? Or is there a legitimate basis for society to phase out the term special needs? Let’s examine the history of how this term came to be used, and what words or terms can be used instead.

History of the Term “Special Needs”

There is a slight dispute about the origins of the term “special needs.” But most likely its origins can be traced to the creation and popularity of the Special Olympics, which was officially founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver. According to the Special Olympics website, the organization was founded “to provide individuals with intellectual disabilities continuing opportunities to realize their potential, develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, and experience joy and friendship.” Eunice Kennedy Shriver was one of the sisters of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy. The Kennedy family also had another sister, Rosemary, who had an intellectual disability. She and Rosemary grew up playing sports together and with their family. The sisters swam, sailed, skied, and played football together. But back then, there were limited programs and options for persons such as Rosemary with an intellectual disability.

Special Olympics vs. Paralympic Games

Many people confuse Special Olympics with the Paralympic Games. As I already mentioned, Special Olympics was started for and remains for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The Paralympic Games are multi-sport events for athletes with physical, mental, and sensory disabilities.

Why Did Shriver Use the Word “Special”?

In 1968, when Special Olympics was founded, and for decades before that, the word “retarded” was the acceptable term to describe people with intellectual disabilities. (Today many people consider the R-word to be extremely offensive.) Back then, “people with intellectual disabilities were routinely institutionalized because their gifts and talents were not recognized,” according to the Special Olympics website.

Also according to their website, this is why “Shriver wanted to use language that was positive — language that would help set an upbeat tone. There were many conversations about words that could best describe an exceptional group of people. Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw the adjective “special” as a way to define the unique gifts of adults and children with intellectual disabilities.”

Special Needs and the US Educational System

Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), also known as the EHA, in 1975 to support states and localities in protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving the results for children with disabilities. This landmark law was responsible for introducing the term “special education” into the United States educational system. But the word “handicapped” eventually fell out of favor due to its negative connotations, and due to political correctness, the name of the EHA law was changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, in a 1990 reauthorization.

Since the passage of EHA in 1975, significant progress has been made toward meeting major national goals for developing and implementing effective programs and services for early intervention, special education, and related services. The U.S. has progressed from excluding nearly 1.8 million children with disabilities from public schools prior to EHA implementation to providing more than 7.5 million children with disabilities with special education and related services. For more information on this topic, see this article: A History of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Is “Special Needs” an Outdated Euphemism?

In 2016, a group of cognitive psychologists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison published the results of their study examining the effectiveness of the term “special needs,” which they called “a popular euphemism for persons with disabilities.” According to their research, “[m]ost style guides prescribe against using the euphemism special needs and recommend instead using the non-euphemized term disability; disability advocates argue adamantly against the euphemism special needs, which they find offensive. In contrast, many parents of children with disabilities prefer to use special needs rather than disability.” According to the study’s authors, prior to their study “no empirical study has examined whether special needs is more or less positive than the term it replaces.”

The researchers gathered data from 530 adult participants from the general population and created a set of vignettes that allowed them to measure how positively people are viewed when they are described as having special needs, having a disability, or having a specific disability (e.g., blindness or Down Syndrome).

The results of the study were that persons “are viewed more negatively when described as having special needs than when described as having a disability or having a certain disability, indicating that special needs is an ineffective euphemism. Even for members of the general population who have a personal connection to disability (e.g., as parents of children with disabilities), the euphemism special needs is no more effective than the non-euphemized term disability.”

The authors of this study also collected “free associations to the terms special needs and disability and found that special needs is associated with more negativity; special needs conjures up more associations with developmental disabilities (such as intellectual disability) whereas disability is associated with a more inclusive set of disabilities; and special needs evokes more unanswered questions.”

The bottom line? The authors of the study stated that their findings “recommend against using the euphemism special needs.”

Click here for the full 2016 study published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.

“Special Needs” Is Not a Legal Term

Although widely used, “special needs” is not an official legal term, despite the fact that we Elder Law attorneys call ourselves “special needs planners” and regularly prepare legal documents entitled “special needs trusts,” legally there is no real basis for using this term. A special needs trust is simply a trust where the trustee has the sole discretion as to when and how to distribute assets for the benefit of a beneficiary who is disabled. Another name for this type of trust is simply a “sole discretion trust.”

According to the same study side above, the term “special needs” appears only about a dozen times across thousands of pages of laws in the U.S. “In nearly a thousand pages of US law, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and 2014, the term special needs occurs only a dozen or so times. And never once are children with disabilities or adults with disabilities referred to as children with special needs or adults with special needs. Rather, individuals with disabilities are always referred to in US law as individuals with disabilities.”

Jamie Davis Smith, whose daughter is disabled, points out that people with disabilities are entitled to certain rights as a result – from movie-theater seating to Medicaid and more. The term “special needs” doesn’t offer the same legal protections.

Why the Term “Special Needs” Feels Offensive to Some

Parents may be more comfortable using “special needs,” but as their children become young adults, they do not appreciate this term. According to Lawrence Carter-Long, communications director for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, “(p)arents, like all of us, are prone to adopt whatever is common in the ecosystem that surrounds them. And since most folks aren’t born into disabled families, it’s no surprise that they just adopt whatever their friends and neighbors do. Even if it’s unintentionally bigoted. Even if it harms their kids in ways they don’t quite understand.”

Quinn West, an artist with disabilities who lives in Chicago, describes it well. He grew up going to a mainstream school and felt the impact of the term “special needs.” “Abled people assume that saying ‘special’ means a ‘good special’ when disabled kids who went through the system know that kids would use ‘special’ as an insult,” West says. West says it makes those who are disabled sound like an extra burden, when that’s not the case; “I’m deaf, so like everyone else I need communication. That need isn’t anything extraordinary. It’s the same need for human connection, but I just need an accommodation to do so.”

What Should We Say Instead of “Special Needs”

The National Center on Disability and Journalism recommends avoiding the term “special needs.” The term “disabled” is acceptable in most contexts, but they advise asking the person to whom you’re referring what they prefer.

According to the National Center on Disability and Journalism, the following are general guidelines for talking about disability

  • The presence of a disability is not and should not be seen as shameful. The use of “special needs” in place of a diagnosis or even in place of the term “disability” creates the sense that there is something negative or even embarrassing to hide. The same sense of shame can be communicated by other euphemisms such as “differently abled” or “challenged.”
  • They suggest taking the term “special needs” out of your vocabulary entirely when talking about or talking to people with disabilities. In fact they lump the euphemism “special needs” along with these other outdated euphemisms: handicapped, differently-abled, stricken, and other adjectives such as “poor” and “unfortunate.” They suggest only using words or phrases such as “disabled,” “disability,” or “people with disabilities” when talking about these issues.
  • Ask the person you are with which term they prefer if they have a disability.
  • Refer to a person’s disability only when it is related to what you are talking about. For example, don’t ask “What’s wrong with you?” Don’t refer to people in general or generic terms such as “the girl in the wheelchair.”
  • When talking about places with accommodations for people with disabilities, use the term “accessible” rather than “disabled” or “handicapped.” For example, refer to an “accessible” parking space rather than a “disabled” or “handicapped” parking space or “an accessible bathroom stall” rather than “a handicapped bathroom stall.”
  • When talking about people without disabilities, it is okay to say “people without disabilities.” But do not refer to them as “normal” or “healthy.” These terms obviously make people with disabilities feel that they are “abnormal.”
  • Just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean he/she is “courageous,” “brave,” “special,” or “superhuman.” People with disabilities are the same as everyone else. It is not unusual for someone with a disability to have talents, skills, and abilities
  • When in doubt, call a person with a disability by the person’s name.

Emily Ladau, author of “Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally,” explains: “I believe deeply that language preferences are a personal choice, and everyone should have a right to choose identifying terms that feel best for them. I try to remind people that language isn’t one-size-fits-all, especially since there are more than a billion disabled people in the world.”

Ladau adds that the term “disability” is not a bad word; it’s a state of being. In some cases, a disability can actually connote identity, history, and culture. Avoiding the term can come across as more patronizing than respectful.

Be Sure to Also Use “Person First” Language

As we are talking about proper terminology, it’s important to remember that when speaking about a person with a disability, you are speaking about a person first and foremost, which means that you should always use “person first” language. This means, for example, using the term “persons with disabilities” and not “disabled persons.” Persons with disabilities do not appreciate their disability being used to define them as a human being.

Be Sure to Plan in Advance!

If you have a disability or have a child with a disability, you need a Special Needs Trust, but of course from now on we’re going to call these Supplemental Needs Trusts now that we have educated ourselves (and you) on the negativity of the term “special needs.” A first-party or third-party supplemental needs trust is often an essential tool to protect the financial future of an individual with disabilities. This type of trust preserves eligibility for federal and state benefits by keeping assets out of the name of the person with disabilities, while still allowing the trust funds to be used to benefit the person with disabilities. Learn more about these trusts here, and pardon our dust while we revamp our website to eliminate the negative term “special needs.”

When it comes to disability planning, estate planning, and retirement planning, the attorneys at the Farr Law Firm can guide you through this process. Contact us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Supplemental Needs Trust Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Supplemental Needs Trust Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Supplemental Needs Trust Attorney Rockville: 301-519-8041
Supplemental Needs Trust Attorney DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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