The Language of Respect: Is the term “Special Needs” Still Appropriate?

We get it: “special needs” is sounding at best dated, and at worst, disrespectful.  But yet, we continue to use the term in law, and in practice. As language continues to evolve, we hope to continue to try to answer this question.  Here is our current perspective on the topic, is the term special needs still appropriate:

Language is a powerful tool that reflects societal attitudes and can influence perceptions. This is especially true in the context of disability, where terms that were once commonplace can become outdated or carry unintended connotations. One such term is “special needs,” which has been widely used but is now being reconsidered within the disability community and beyond.

The Origin and Usage of “Special Needs”

The term “special needs” emerged as a way to describe individuals who require additional or different types of services due to various disabilities or medical conditions. It was intended to be a more considerate approach, moving away from stigmatizing labels that had been used in the past.

The Shift in Perspective

Perspectives on the term “special needs” have shifted. In the past couple of years, more clients have asked us to not use the term special needs. Critics argue that it can be vague, euphemistic, and inadvertently othering, suggesting that the needs of individuals with disabilities are extra or outside the norm, rather than recognizing that everyone has needs, some of which are just met in different ways.

Advocating for Person-First Language

There has been a strong movement towards person-first language, such as “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person,” to emphasize the individuality of each person, rather than defining them by their disability. This approach aligns with the idea that having a disability is one aspect of a person’s identity, not the entirety of it.

The Importance of Identity-First Language for Some

Conversely, some within the disability community prefer identity-first language, such as “disabled person,” viewing their disability as an integral part of who they are. This preference is especially prevalent in the neurodiversity movement, where terms like “autistic person” are widely embraced.

Listening to Individual Preferences

The appropriateness of “special needs” or any term related to disability ultimately comes down to personal preference. It is crucial to listen to and honor how individuals choose to identify themselves. This means asking people how they wish to be referred to and respecting their choices.

Legal and Professional Contexts

In legal and professional settings, such as special education and healthcare, specific terms have defined meanings that inform service provision. While “special needs” might still be used in these contexts, there is a growing awareness and push towards using language that is both accurate and respectful.  Part of the difficulty in making a shift within law is that “disability” and other terms that might be considered already indicate other highly specific areas of law, such as Social Security Disability and insurance policy work.

The “Special” in Special Needs Trusts

A special needs trust is a legal arrangement designed to financially support an individual with disabilities, without jeopardizing their eligibility for government benefits like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income. It provides a secure, managed resource for expenses that enhance the individual’s quality of life, while ensuring that essential needs-based aid remains intact.  In this context, the term “special” refers to the trust’s ability to pay for comforts and luxuries (not covered by public assistance) that the beneficiary might not otherwise afford. These can include expenses like:

  • Personal care attendants
  • Out-of-pocket medical and dental expenses
  • Education
  • Transportation (including vehicle purchase)
  • Rehabilitation
  • Insurance
  • Essential dietary needs
  • Entertainment and electronics
  • Travel
  • Legal fees
  • Any other items to enhance quality of life

The term ‘special needs’ in the context of these trusts does not imply that the individuals benefiting from them have ‘special’ needs in the way the term is colloquially used. Rather, it signifies the special legal arrangement that allows for these individuals to maintain access to essential government benefits while receiving additional support to meet their unique needs.

As our understanding of disability evolves, so too does our language. What matters most is respect, inclusivity, and the recognition of each person’s humanity. Whether or not “special needs” is appropriate may vary from person to person, but what remains constant is the need for dialogue and understanding.

In the field of estate and special needs planning, like at Emily R. Taylor, Attorney, PLLC, we are committed to staying at the forefront of respectful and person-centered communication. We understand the importance of language in empowering our clients and their families, ensuring that we meet not just their legal needs but also engage with them with the dignity they deserve.

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