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Changing Perspectives: “Special Needs” vs “Disability”

Posted on June 25, 2019 by Ann

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Here is a word from one of All In’s founder Daniel Tan, who is currently the Honorary Assistant Secretary of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS). He is also the Chairman of the Residential and Community-based Care Services Committee.

In this article, Daniel shares his thoughts about the terms used to describe disability. 


Ever Changing Times

Over the last two centuries, we have seen an evolution of the terms used to describe disability. It is heartening that the trend has consistently been towards greater awareness, inclusivity and sensitivity.

For example, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were said to be “feeble-minded”. By the mid-1900s, the term “mentally retarded” was used. Then, in the past few decades, the term has been replaced by “intellectual disability” and most recently “intellectual and developmental disability”.

In Singapore, the Singapore Association for Retarded Children (SARC), which was founded in 1962, was renamed Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) in 1985.

In the US, then President Obama signed a new law in 2010 requiring the federal government to replace the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in many areas of government.

The evolution doesn’t stop there though as we are still constantly rethinking and questioning how to articulate and define ourselves.

“Disability” vs “Special Needs”

In recent years, there have been discussions in many countries on the use of the terms “disability” and “special needs”.

Having volunteered in the disability sector for more than 20 years, I had always thought that “special needs” would be a more positive term to use. But when I learnt from Rich Donovan in this interview that “disability” should be the right term to use instead, I started to do my own research.

I now appreciate the nuances of using the term “special needs”. Many parents, as well as us professionals and volunteers in the disability space, like to use “special needs” to soften the language. Parents may also prefer “special needs” because of all the negativity impressed by society on people with disabilities in general. They may not want to acknowledge that their children has a disability. Instead, their children just have needs that are more special.

However parents in other countries are starting to speak up for the use of “disability” instead of “special needs”. A parent Ellen Stumbo shared about a conversation she had with her daughter with cerebral palsy and the reason her daughter prefers the word “disability”.

“[…] let’s remember we do not get to tell a group of people we don’t belong to what terminology they should identify with.”

Another parent Jamie Davis Smith could not ask her daughter with disabilities what her preference is as she could not speak but Jamie is still pushing for the use of “disability” as she’s taking cues from advocates who are persons with disability themselves. (Link)

Tessa Prebble, whose Daughter had multiple disabilities, wrote a very thoughtful piece about her own experience as a parent and how she struggled to reconcile the terms.

Research has even been done on this topic. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Kansas studied the effectiveness of using the term “special needs” as a euphemism. Based on the findings, the researchers recommended against using the euphemism “special needs”.  The paper, “Special needs” is an ineffective euphemism”, was published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.

The Down syndrome community has come out very loudly against the use of “special needs”. Two years ago, a Not Special Needs campaign was introduced along with the World Down Syndrome Day with a film highlighting that persons with Down syndrome do not have needs that are special. Instead, their needs are just like every other human being’s – family, education, job, friends, love, etc.

We may need to have similar conversations in Singapore as well.

Written by Daniel Tan

Read more

Interview with Rich Donovan, Top 50 Most Influential People with Disability

A Kinder and More Caring Society? Let’s Start with Our Children