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"Special" Needs: How We Label What Should be Ordinary

mheffern's picture

I would like to examine Petra Kuppers' thoughts regarding how we define ourselves and one another. In the Introduction to "Disability Culture and Community Performance," she writes: "We live in tension and in love with (these) labels, and carve out space for our creativity where we can" (Kuppers, 7). In the texts, movies, and people that we have encountered thus far in our course, we have come across artists who prefer to be referred to as “disabled artists,” and others who like being known as simply “artists,” with the marker of disability playing a secondary role. We have seen artists who like using the terms “crip” and “crippled,” and those who feel more comfortable with “disabled” or “special needs.” And, due to these preferences, we have also encountered artists who reject or dislike certain labeling terms.

When I initially heard Simi Linton say that she was “going to punch someone in the face if she heard one more person use the term ‘special needs,’ ” I was surprised. Throughout my family’s experience in the world of disability, we have all used this term without considering the possibility that some may not like this designation. Indeed, my dad’s area of law is typically referred to as “special education.” Yet, when I heard her explain her reasoning, her strong stance on the term made sense: the needs of people with disabilities are not “special”—they are basic rights. One of the definitions given for the term “special” is “different from what is usual” (Oxford Dictionary). But disability rights should be “what is usual.”

However, these rights are often not given to people with disabilities or, if given, they have to be fought for. Perhaps the sad reality that people with disabilities are way too often denied their rights is why they are referred to as “special.” And, perhaps, if there comes a time in which these rights are guaranteed, they will inherit a new term that elicits only love and not tension, as Kuppers states.

Or, these rights will be integrated into the overarching system of basic human rights, and denying them will be the only thing that is “special.”