Others ask, sometimes rather caustically, why I refrain from using the term “special needs” in reference to my daughter. Rather, when a nod to her diagnosis is required for context, I use expressions like – my daughter with differences, or my girl who communicates alternatively and who is intellectually original, etc. I am accused of being too politically correct. Another parent informed me that my choice of words is false diplomacy, as though I am gingerly engaging the enemy (the dreaded ‘one not personally impacted by disability’) as a means to an end. It has also been suggested that my choice of words is too vague to describe my daughter, that others cannot get a clear picture. But I don’t attempt to draw a clear picture with my words. Addie will demonstrate who she is herself, if she chooses to. And does ‘special needs’ give a clear picture of anyone? Does it sum a child up? And is it really her needs that make her diverse?
I took my older daughter to hear Keith Jones speak a few months ago. Cate is 10 years old, but had enough desire to hear Mr. Jones to withstand the 40 minute car ride each way, locked in with 3 mothers yammering about IEPs, accommodations and hippotherapy. My daughter is a big fan of the film Including Samuel in which Mr. Jones is featured, often quoting him in conversations with kids and adults alike, as she furthers her own agenda for her sister and the meaningful inclusion of any and all people with differences.
My fifth grader - one of the 3 children in an auditorium full of adults - listened and laughed, for Mr. Jones is as uproariously witty as he is enlightening on the subject of disability rights, revolution and social justice. At the end my brave girl raised her dimpled child’s hand. Her voice was paradoxically both timid and bold as she thoughtfully inquired, “Why do you think, Keith, that it’s taking the world so long to understand that everybody is kind of the same? We’re all just people, we all have the same needs. Why is it taking so long to get it?” The way she asked, it was clear she expected new understanding that she could act on, an answer that began with the word “Because….”
Mr. Jones permanent smile straightened for a split second as he replied “Out of the mouths of babes.”
Of course, I could not leave it and I asked my daughter later about her question. She elaborated further that since everybody’s needs are special to them, nobody’s needs are really special. If we keep thinking somebody has special and mysterious needs, we think we cannot give that person their complicated needs, so we don't even try. She firmly attested that we all need precisely the same things. We worked out a list together - thinking of her sister, thinking of ourselves, thinking of others - to test her theory. On the list of needs we all have: a full belly, shelter, health, safety, love, meaningful contributions, challenge, somebody to talk to and trust, and to do a few things that make you proud. Some people can get these things in traditional ways. For others, different tools are used: feeding tubes, medical intervention, assistive technology, creative teaching, therapies, facilitated social opportunities to practice, open-minded and willing employers…
Cate decided, yes indeed. The means may differ, but the needs themselves are pretty standard for all of us.
I do not use the term "special needs" for no other reason than because my children and my experience have rendered it meaningless.