World Down Syndrome Day COORDOWN
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What special needs

does someone with

Down syndrome

have? NONE.

People with Down syndrome, like everyone else, have basic human needs – to eat, drink, breathe and sleep – to be nurtured, loved, educated and sheltered – to move, communicate, contribute and work – and to share, love and live.

Sure, people with Down syndrome may need extra assistance. Sometimes they even need significant assistance, and adjustments, to meet a particular need. But that doesn't make that common human need “special.”

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Sure, people with Down syndrome may need extra assistance. Sometimes they even need significant assistance, and adjustments, to meet a particular need. But that doesn't make that common human need “special.”

For example, a person who requires some help in speaking, writing or being understood, is still meeting the same human need that we all share – the need to communicate. The only thing that is different is the degree of assistance or the way they meet that need, not the need itself.

The phrase "special needs" is a common euphemism – usually intended by the speaker to refer to a person with a disability in what they think is a more positive or comfortable way.

    But the phrase "special needs" is actually counter-productive in so many ways:

  1. By definition it “exceptionalises,” segregates and excludes.
  2. It stigmatises as it is associated with segregated settings (e.g. special schools, special workshops and special group homes), and accordingly for many, a “special needs” label is effectively a one-way ticket to a separate, segregated, low expectations pathway through life.
  3. Being a euphemism, it is increasingly considered patronizing, condescending and offensive by people with disabilities.
  4. It serves to distance people with "special needs," as it implies that their needs can only be met in a "special" way or by "specialists." This complicates inclusion of people with disabilities in regular education and employment.
  5. In “exceptionalising” disability and reinforcing attitudinal barriers, it hinders the recognition of disability as a part of human diversity, and slows the realization of human rights for people with disabilities.
  6. Recent research suggests that people respond more negatively to someone described as being or having "special needs," compared to someone described as having disabilities or a particular disability.

Some people - especially parents of children who have a disability or who function in ways that are not typical - may prefer the phrase "special needs" over "disability," because describing someone as having a disability feels harsh or cold. However, the vast majority of people with disabilities recognize the attitudinal barriers, stigmas and paternalism that comes with the increasing use of the phrase "special needs."

In endeavouring to meet their human needs and realize their full potential, people with disabilities, including Down syndrome, are not helped by sugar-coating disability with the phrase "special needs."

We must listen to people with disabilities and stop using the word "special."

It is time to recognize people with disabilities, including Down syndrome, as equal siblings in our family of human diversity – as people with the same rights and same fundamental human needs as everyone else, even if they may require extra assistance or a different way of meeting a particular human need.

We shouldn’t just replace “special needs” with another euphemism like “additional needs,” “challenged,” or “differently-abled.”

But what words should we use instead?

Well, it depends on the context.

How about just the person’s name? It is not always necessary or appropriate to refer to someone by a label.

But in the situations where it is helpful, we should "say the word," and call disabilities or the relevant disability what it is - "Disability," "Down syndrome," etc.

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Not Special Needs

Changing Language

to Change Attitudes

By Martina Fuga, Board Member

of CoorDown, Italy

Words are important; they represent the alphabet of our culture. If we want to change our culture then we must start by reflecting on the words that we use and what they reveal about how we think. We need to educate ourselves and others about how changes in language can demolish prejudice, change our mindsets and, as a consequence, our reality.

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Italian Version

In the context of changing cultural attitudes to Down syndrome, we have called for an end to using words like “retarded” or “disease” as well as the expression “affected by” - a battle fought for years and that still has not been won. But what about terms like “differently-abled” and “special needs”? The use of these euphemisms to refer to people with disability in many case reflects the best of intentions – parents or professionals trying to find language that is not stigmatizing – and yet, we cannot overlook what is concealed and perpetuated when we use these expressions.

First of all, the fundamental needs of people with Down syndrome are not special, they are regular needs: the need to learn, the need for connection and friendship, the need to work and be valued, the need to love and be loved. This has been recently endorsed by many people with disabilities and advocates in some articles. However, what concerns me the most is the cultural prejudice that lies at the heart of the concept of “special” and the isolation and marginalization that flow from that prejudice.

In my own experience as a mother, I used the term "special needs" in relation to my daughter Emma from the first day; maybe I needed to get used to having a daughter with Down syndrome, a daughter that I did not expect, and I believed that with this "softer" expression I was sweetening the “stigma” pill and protecting her, but the truth is that I was denying an essential part of the person she is. It seemed to me as if it was less harsh, more sensitive, to call her a “special child”. But I didn’t realise how counter-productive that was: I was avoiding getting to know and accepting her fully and, at the same time, I was keeping her in a protected and exceptionalised mental place that would isolate her and shape her to see herself as separate.

There were various negative consequences. On the one hand, people started to pigeonhole her, on the other hand she developed a kind of presumption and egocentricity, as if being a little girl with disability automatically granted her a distinct status. It took me years to understand I was the first to make things complicated, that calling her "special" would not change her life.

I learnt this from my other children, who complained about my excessive attention, preferential treatment and overprotecting behaviour towards their sibling; who asked themselves what they had to do to get their own "special" trappings. What they perceived was confused and distorted, and it was largely due to my language and to my attitude.

I learnt more from Emma’s schoolmates: they taught me my daughter was Emma, just Emma. I remember one particular day when everything seemed clear and simple to me. That day, they were irritated when they asked me: “Aren’t we special too?”. They petrified me and, after some long minutes of embarrassed silence, I answered: “Of course you are, each one of you, in your own way. I was wrong…until today!”. Emma’s needs were their needs too and they didn’t consider her as someone special or different because she met some of her needs in different ways. They understood her effort, her difficulty in expressing herself, but also her determination, her courage and her spirit. Maybe Emma needed strategies, motivation, confidence, but aren’t these the same things every child needs? Emma required adjustments to learn, a different level of assistance from teachers or schoolmates to meet her needs, but this did not make her desire to learn, to communicate or to relate to her friends “special needs”.

I understood through experience that labelling her “special” from the start prevented anyone from relating to her without the baggage of assumptions and preconceptions that come with that word, from giving her a real chance; expectations were resized, everybody got "compliant" and Emma was more and more imprisoned by the way she was being defined.

During these 12 years, many things have changed, my vocabulary too. I don’t use the word “normal” anymore, I use “typical”; I don’t use the word “special” anymore, I use “disabled”; I don’t use the word “gift” and I don’t consider my daughter as a superheroine; I’m not a “special mother” and my daughter is a girl with Down syndrome who lives her life with the same need to belong as everyone else. Euphemisms are not helpful so let’s call things by their name - disability #saytheword it’s what disability activists ask for. To tell it like it is allows me to look at things without hiding, to face life in a direct way. And it allows Emma to do the same. I feel as if I am respecting my daughter more, as if I am giving her the chance to define her own identity over time, of which disability is part.

As parents we have a great responsibility; people around us do not know how to behave, they are uncomfortable and scared of what they are not familiar with, they look at us parents for guidance and they learn from us. When our child grows up, we want him/her to be treated the same as anyone else: we have to set this expectation first so that others will follow. I believe that there will come a day when we will have, as a society, rejected “special” and all those other terms of "endearment", a day in which we will call our children only by their name, acknowledging their strengths and challenges –not as something that separates them – but merely as characteristics of human diversity.

It is a long way from calling children "special" to accepting them as different and marvelously unique as they are, but that change in mindset is essential and worth it! Offering up "special treatment" and an expectation of “separation” guarantees a result that is the opposite to inclusion. "Inclusion" is not compatible with building a separate "special" world that is tailor-made for people considered different – rather it is to give the right to a person with disability to express their personality and identity in their classroom, in their community, in their town, in the whole world, where their characteristics and their individuality are accepted and respected; where they are accepted by peers as equals, not as "special" (and lesser).

The inclusion to which I aspire for my daughter requires consideration of the necessary cultural change. That change, in turn, requires consideration of language relevant to that change. The revolution in mindset inherent in what seems, superficially, only linguistic fussiness is extraordinary. It involves moving from a perspective in which people with disability are quarantined in "special places" by "specialness", to a perspective in which the equal rights people with disability claim – including the fundamental right to belong - are recognized, so that they have the greatest chance to choose and carve out their place in the world.

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He Ain't Special,

He's My Brother

By Catia Malaquias,

CEO, Starting with Julius

The word “special” is used to sugar-coat segregation and societal exclusion – and its continued use in our language, education systems, media etc serves to maintain those increasingly antiquated “special” concepts that line the path to a life of exclusion and low expectations.

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The logic of the connection between “special needs” and “special [segregated] places” is very strong – it doesn’t need reinforcement – it needs to be broken.

Further, and more fundamentally, the concept of “special needs” is flawed. There is no such thing as “special needs”.  A child with a disability has the same needs as everyone else – the same human needs – to be loved, nurtured, fed, educated, sheltered – to move, communicate, participate and belong etc.  A person may require more assistance in meeting a particular need, especially when their environment has been predetermined without regard for their disability, but they are still seeking to meet basic human needs.

The label of “special needs” is inconsistent with recognition of disability as part of human diversity.  In that social framework, none of us are “special” as we are all equal siblings in the diverse family of humanity.

Read the full article here.

3 Reasons to Say 'Disability' Instead of 'Special Needs'

By Meriah Nichols,

deaf mother of a daughter with Down syndrome

Adults with disabilities ask that you say "disability" and not "special needs" when you are talking about disability. As Louise Shiffer said:

"Disabled people should control the conversation about their disabilities, language used about them, not their parents."

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... the majority of [adults with disabilities] identify as having a disability, not a special need.

Point blank. Call it what it is.

Say the word: disability.

In the words of Lawrence Carter-Long:

"A need isn't special if other people get to take the same thing for granted."

"Handi-capable", "People of all abilities", "Different abilities", "Differently abled" and "special needs" were made up outside of the disability community, by people without disabilities. Their continued use, and defense of their use by people without disabilities reeks of able-splaining; that is, people without disabilities explaining disability to people with disabilities.

Read the full article here.

My Needs Are

Not "Special"

By Michelle Sutton,

an Autistic mother of children with disabilities

Too often proclaiming a person has “special needs” is the trigger for people to give up, asserting that sometimes there is “just no solution” and that the disabled person will have to “learn to cope” and “develop their skills” so they can “fit in to society” and “have a hope of getting a job and making friends”. When in fact there is always a solution that respects the rights of the disabled person, and we regularly live meaningful valuable lives as ourselves without having to change and fit in to societies unrealistic expectations and arbitrary rules of existence.

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All people have needs. When their needs are met, all people live their lives well. All people receive help to see their needs met from time to time. Our society works on shared ideas, spaces and resources. Assisting a non-disabled person to see their needs met is not perceived as heroic, patient or inherently good. It is called living life in community.

Why is it viewed differently when someone helps a disabled person see their needs met? Why are the needs of disabled people seen as having a different value than others?

My needs are not special.

Read the full article here.

4 Disability Euphemisms

That Need To

Bite the Dust

By Emily Ladau,

Writer And Disability Rights Activist

... when non disabled people try to dance around the word "disabled" in an effort to be more respectful, I don't think they realize the hidden ableism behind the euphemisms. It demonstrates an assumption that "disabled" is a negative quality or derogatory word, when in fact, disabled is what I am. It is, in my opinion, the plainest, simplest, most straightforward, and least offensive way to refer to what my body can and cannot do.

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Why, oh why is this still such a common term? It makes no sense to me. By much the same logic that explains why “differently-abled” is inaccurate, it’s clear that “special needs” is too. If you are a human, you have needs. Everyone has needs. What makes mine so “special” just because I have a disability? Nothing.

My needs are not “special” just because they’re not met in ways identical to the needs of non-disabled people. I need a ramp; you need steps. Not special, just facts. I need a wheelchair; you walk. Not special, just facts. Moreover, the needs of non-disabled people certainly aren’t all met in the same ways. Just like every other living, breathing human being on this planet, I am a person who has needs that must be fulfilled in ways appropriate to my abilities.

Whether you’re disabled or non-disabled, I urge you to realize why euphemisms really aren’t a show of respect, no matter how well meaning your intent might be. They can be disempowering, patronizing, and even hurtful. So please, just call me a disabled woman, because that’s who I am, and that’s who I’m proud to be.

Read the full article here.

Isn’t It a Pity?

The Real Problem

With Special Needs

By Torrie Dunlap,

CEO, Kids Included Together

I believe that a reason why as a society we have not embraced children with disabilities as full participants in our schools and communities is the limitation of our own mental models around disability. We have moved from hiding and institutionalizing children to a world where kids with disabilities are “special” and receive special services in special settings with special caregivers, and they - and their families - are disenfranchised from the community at large and have become their own separate community.

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I believe that “special” has become a euphemism for “separate.” When we create separate, “special” places for children where their “special needs” can be met, we are teaching them that their place is over there, with people like them and not in the full community. When young, impressionable children are taught that their needs are too great, that they are too different and that they don’t fit our very narrow definition of “normal” this has a life long affect on their ability to contribute positively to society. Our goal as adults, parents, teachers and child care providers is to help kids grow up to be confident, happy adults who make a positive contribution to the world. But, when it comes to kids with disabilities we have missed the boat.

Read the full article here.

We Need To Rethink

The Term "Special Needs" - Here's Why

By Disability Africa

"Special needs" has become a term that is used to describe people with impairments but we believe it has become a term which is further disabling people.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of people (including me) use certain terms with the very best intentions, sometimes it is counter-productive. Merely labelling a group of people - disabled people - as "special" implies they are recognised as being far different from everybody else. The consequence of this is that they will be treated differently, ensuring that the stigma (which exists in all cultures to varying degrees) remains. This is the opposite of inclusion, despite the fact that inclusion is often the aim when using the term "special needs".

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Terminology and language are so important: once we separate people in discourse and our minds, we then start to separate people in practice. History shows us that this is a dangerous thing to do. 

Read the full article here.

Beyond The AP Stylebook

Language and Usage Guide for

Reporters and Editors

Most people involved in disability issues today see "disabled" or "disability" as terms of choice.

A "Special" Note:

The term "special" as in "special education" has been, is, and will be used to refer to efforts made to meet group and individual educational needs. However, the term "special" has come to be used as a euphemism for segregated programs or physical facilities that are almost always inferior to what is available to nondisabled individuals. "Special" has definite negative connotations within the disability rights movement.

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If you are using the term "special" to mean "separate," use "separate" instead. Instead of writing, "special buses for the disabled," write, "separate buses for disabled people." For "special handicap bathroom," write, "separate bathroom."

If you are using the term "special" to mean "disabled," use "disabled" or "disability" instead.

Read the full article here.

Get Involved

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  • Write letters to school boards and media outlets.
  • To find events, go to: World Down Syndrome Day COORDOWN

Spread the word

Si Down Syndrome Interional
Down Syndrome Australia
Fondation Lejeune
Down's Syndrome Association