The longer I do disability advocacy work, the more irritated I am with the use of “special needs”. “Special” has become a euphemism for the minimization of issues for disabled people. We have made it the opposite of its original meaning. I have seen the needs of the disabled portrayed as less important, less essential, less feasible and therefore less of a priority for Normal people. Yes, I used Normal because that is the terminology for “able bodied” that people who use “special needs” for disabled apply to themselves. A more accurate word for normal might be average; the average person can overcome the barriers. With increasing numbers of people affected by disability, we could be approaching a world in which the average person has some kind of disability. That might produce some interesting changes.
For years we have accepted Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as universal, essential needs of all humans. As we examine and try to dismantle systemic racism, we learn how racism has denied equal access to essential needs to those who are not white. As we examine homophobia and the various permutations of fear around gender identity, we learn how religion and legislation has denied equal access to essential needs to those who are not cis-gendered, heterosexual. Yet when we look at access to essential needs by people with disabilities, those needs suddenly become “special needs”. We look at correcting racism and homophobia as justice issues for individuals claiming their own power, yet we characterize the disabled community as asking for accommodations for their special needs, making them beggars, not powerful claimants. Language matters. The meaning we give words betrays generations of bias.
This year’s Oscar ceremony was honestly, not as lively as many before. However, there were some interesting aspects. A film up for best documentary, Crip Camp, brought wheelchair users and service dogs to the ceremony. For the first time we saw a wheelchair accessible stage—and the awkward way abled people were not sure how to approach it. A film up for several awards, The Sound of Metal, brought deaf people to the ceremony. Several of the socially distanced tables had ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters signing for those in attendance. The deaf presenter, Marlee Matlin, signed and had a voiced interpreter. It might have made a greater impact if simply signed her remarks and illuminated, for hearing but not signing folks, our universal need to understand what is being communicated.
Disabled adults are not childish. Although some disabilities include developmental and intellectual challenges, many disabilities do not include those characteristics and disabled adults are far more capable of functional decision making than they are given credit or opportunity. It is well documented that large numbers of people fail to speak directly to disabled adults. People in authority, from business to social settings, look for an abled person to speak for the disabled person. It happens far too frequently when I am with able bodied friends and family. It is demeaning to the disabled adult.
Affordable, accessible, safe housing for the disabled is not a special need. Disabled housing is often segregated apart from general apartment complexes, restricted to poverty level incomes or available only to those who can afford home ownership and renovation. Lack of housing is a justice issue. Sustainable income for work and a safe work environment for the disabled is not a special need. Subminimum wages and the refusal to be flexible in work environments is a justice issue. The pandemic has brought to light the hugely false premise told to decades of disabled, qualified applicants that most jobs cannot be done at home. Disabled adults getting government benefits should be able to marry without the economic coercion of losing benefits. Access to healthcare and supportive services is a justice issue for everyone. The ability of the disabled to make their own decisions about reproduction is a justice issue. Did you know that into the 1970’s, some states made involuntary sterilization of the disabled legal? Access to education is not a special need. Teachers were put in an impossible situation with the pandemic. Overnight they were expected to figure out, on their own without guidance, how to provide access to education for students without internet or computers and, for many students who may not function well without direct and supervised input. We put a man on the moon before we had legislation guaranteeing children with disabilities the right to an education. Now we have a rover on Mars we can maneuver but we cannot coordinate education for disabled students because it’s just too complicated. There is a justice issue when events disproportionately affect marginalized groups over privileged groups and the disabled community has a host of justice issues waiting for attention.
Everyone needs healthy food, affordable and accessible housing, access to healthcare and a sense of safety and belonging. We all need a way to contribute to our world, meaningful work to do and a way to play and relax. In today’s world, we all need a means of transportation and ways to communicate and connect. We all need dreams to grow into and a foundation of worthiness to grow from. The privileged take all these things for granted. Systemic racism and all the other “isms” of oppression, including “ableism” have forced marginalized people to aspire to having these basic needs being met.
Justice is a “material world” issue. In the spiritual realm, we are all whole and we all have access to everything we need. In our Oneness, there is no need for labels, no obstacles to the desires of our heart. In the material world, our humanity driven ego has constructed systems of better and lesser and barriers that maintain those divisions. I don’t know about you, but once I decide there is a difference between me and others, I struggle not to make the others “lesser”. Brene Brown and others speak of the “de-humanization” which is a part of oppression. It is so ingrained in us, it takes tremendous conscious thought to first see how we have made the other lesser and de-humanized; second see how de-humanization is influencing our beliefs and actions; and finally change our belief and our action. If we truly believe “With God, all things are possible”, then we can begin now to visualize a world in which we cease to make others lesser than ourselves. We can visualize a world in which everyone’s needs are met in ways that really work for them. Once we see it, we begin to be it. We begin to work for justice for all. And that really will be special.
Image description: small walker at the door threshold. A mat is visible on the porch with the word HOME.