I have never liked the term “special needs” as referring to disabilities. I dislike it most as an adjective, e.g. “a special-needs child,” because it is inelegant (one of the same reasons I hate “stay-at-home mom”), but the main reason for disliking it is more substantive. Every child has special needs. In our home there are two children with autism and two children who are “typically developing,” but each has needs particular to him or her and one is not more “special” than another.

I don’t like the term “special needs,” but I find myself using it anyway because it is the popular term these days and a convenient shorthand when you’re trying to be inclusive of various kinds of disabilities. But you know what? I don’t like the word “disabled” or “disability” any better.

Last week I posted something about Rahm Emanuel getting raked over the coals for using “retarded” as an insult. I understand how “retarded” has come to be a pejorative and therefore it has to be shuttled by polite society. Apparently they are in the process of replacing all instances of the words “retarded” and “retardation” in government documents with “disabled” or “intellectual disability” or something along those lines. I understand why they’re doing it, and yet I also think it’s too bad that a word that started out as a euphemism for a particular kind of handicap–a nice word, meaning “slow”–is now considered no better than a racial slur, just because some mean people misused it (a lot). That’s what mean people do, you know. They see people’s weaknesses and they mock them. They can turn any word into an insult, and eventually we have no choice but to capitulate to their meanness and designate the word unacceptable. And eventually the word is used exclusively as an insult, with no consideration given to its earlier, benign meaning. (See “dumb” and “idiot.”)

The trick is to find a new term that is cumbersome enough that schoolyard bullies aren’t tempted to co-opt it for their nefarious purposes. Mean people are already using “special needs” the same way they use “retarded,” but “developmentally disabled” hasn’t quite caught on as an insult–probably because it is more tongue-twisty than “special needs.” So maybe it will have staying power as a “nice” term for folks who were once called “retarded” (in a nice way), but I still don’t like it.

“Dis-abled” means “not abled,” so it’s no wonder that the especially PC among us prefer the term “differently abled.” I personally think “differently abled” is ridiculous, but “disabled” has a more negative connotation in my mind than, say, “handicapped.” I mean, golfers have handicaps. I don’t see anything wrong with saying my child has a handicap. My child does have a handicap. It doesn’t make him less valuable as a human being, and I’m not sure how the word “handicap” implies such a thing, but at some point somebody decided that “handicapped” was pejorative. (Remember when they used to say “handicapable”? Thus proving that there is a more ridiculous term than “differently abled.”) Alas, I was not the parent of a handicapped child back when they were deciding to jettison “handicapped.” I would certainly have spoken up for it. But it’s too late for that.

It’s not too late, though, for me to chime in on the word “autistic.” I was surprised and dismayed to learn that people actually object to using this word as a descriptor and insist that instead of referring to people as “autistic,” we should refer to them as “people with autism.” Okay, whatever. Is that not what “autistic” means? Of or relating to autism? My understanding is that they want to emphasize the personhood rather than the disability, but…again, whatever. Of course my children are people with autism. They are autistic people. Are you a white person, or are you a “person with whiteness”? Are you a tall person, or are you a “person with tallness”? Are you a mean person, or are you a “person with meanness”? I can’t get behind this new trend. It’s too dumb, if you’ll pardon the expression. (Rahm Emanuel might use more colorful terminology, but I sure won’t.)

Anyway, what are your thoughts, gentle readers? How do you feel about “disabled” and “special needs” rather than “handicapped,” or for that matter, “retarded”? And what about “autistic”? What the bleep is wrong with “autistic”?

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