Welcome to Illinois

Nothing special

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on July 2, 2008

One of the first changes I noticed in my own behaviour following the confirmation that our child has Down’s syndrome was a heightened sensitivity to the language used to describe disability and people with disabilities.

I have had to learn myself to refer to “babies with Down’s syndrome” rather than “Down’s syndrome babies” for example.

I am also learning not to be easily offended and how to be patient with friends and relatives regarding their use of language in the hope that they will pick up on our lead as to what we consider to be appropriate.

However, there is one word that to be is like fingernails on a blackboard: “special.”

“Special children line up for pre-K diplomas,” is the headline for this vomit-inducing piece from LoHud.com that means well but is a prime example of the sort of condescending attitude to disability that I have already come to hate.

I understand why the media is attracted to such euphemisms but “special” is patronising and lazy and trite. Why not just say “disabled children”? I’d even prefer they used the term “retarded” rather than “special” (although I accept that many would disagree with me on that one).

With that in mind I was pleased to see this comment in an opinion piece from the Canadian London Free Press reviewing a new book written by a man named John Ryan about his experiences raising his son Tiberius, who has Down’s:

“John Ryan doesn’t… agree with those who suggest that God sends his ‘special children’ to ‘special parents’. ‘It was just something that happened,’ he tells me. ‘And then you deal with it.'”

It’s refreshing to see the subject discussed so simply and honestly. Unfortunately even the writer of the opinion piece can’t avoid falling for the old cliché.

Still, Ryan doesn’t avoid pointing out the problems that came with having such a special son,” he adds later.

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6 Responses

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  1. Rickismon said, on July 7, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Even if you believe that G-d gives special kids to special parents, I think:

    1. The parents BECOME special from the experience
    2. Most people who say this do so since they think that it will protect them from having a special child (as they don’t view themselves as saints, as we all know our own hidden sins….)
    3. I also hate the word “special” since it has a condescending overtone
    4.Even if the child has a special soul, you have to raise him to live in this THIS world. When I get to the next world, maybe that special I will see there.

    A nice blog.

  2. welcometoillinois said, on July 8, 2008 at 11:04 am

    Thanks for the comments Rickismom.

    I agree that some children with disabilities are special and some parents of children with disabilities are special, and are examples to everyone. But to use the word as a blanket term is condescending.

  3. […] me about it is the title, athough it could have been worse (at least they didn’t use “special” […]

  4. […] latter point is actually a concern I share, having objected to the use of the term “special” on linguistic grounds. I also mentioned “the […]

  5. […] “special” out of the Special Olympics 17 01 2009 Putting aside my distaste for the use of “special” as a euphemism, these adverts for the forthcoming Special […]

  6. The s-word « Welcome to Illinois said, on April 3, 2009 at 11:31 am

    […] previously mentioned my distaste for “special” as a euphemism and while I would agree with Michael that I […]


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