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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

special needs

(1980’s | therapese | “handicapped,” “disabled”)

Presumably descended from the already widespread phrases, “special education” and “Special Olympics.” The crucial change in recent years has to do with part of speech; “special needs” has gone from noun-adjective phrase to unhyphenated compound adjective — not that the old formulation has disappeared. The compound adjective started getting tossed around in the eighties. Before it was applied wholesale to students, it went with orphans and foster children. As one commentator put it in 1984, the old word for “special needs” was “unadoptable.” (Another was “problem,” as in “problem child.”) Now it can apply even to pets. “Special needs” come in many forms, from familiar physical handicaps to mental or emotional instabilities of various kinds, or maybe your kid is just slow (excuse me, has a developmental disability). It has become standard to talk about special needs kids, or the institutions that serve them — classes, programs, transportation — or the group that they are part of; “special needs community” is a common expression now, and it wasn’t twenty years ago. When you’re talking about children, “special needs” refers to disorders of individuals; when it is used to talk about the elderly or anyone else, it normally encompasses conditions common to most members of the group.

That distinction is interesting, and to see why we’ll have to go back to the noun-adjective construction, which has been available for a long time. Kids generally do not claim special-needs status for themselves; there are plenty of people anxious to claim it for them. But other kinds of special needs are advertised by the group they belong to. Take a phrase like “special needs of the oil industry.” In 1975, this phrase could easily have been used (in fact, it was) not to emphasize the burdens fossil-fuel barons labored under, but the privileges that their circumstances entitled them to. It was the sort of thing a lobbyist or legislator might remark upon just before pushing through a big tax break. You didn’t have to be underprivileged (does anyone use that word any more? — it was all the rage back in the seventies) to have special needs. And you don’t now. But we are much more inclined to hear it that way thanks to the last thirty years’ worth of education policy. Before 1985 or so, “special needs” meant “I’m better than you” rather than “I’m worse off than you.”

What does “special” mean, anyway? When it doesn’t mean “specific or distinct” (as it did in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance) or “extraordinary,” as it did then and still does, it means “unique,” a much more recent definition dinned into us by pop psychology. When I was a kid, this use of “special” was common, but it had grown up only in the previous couple of decades. “I am special” came to mean “I am unique,” with the corollary that uniqueness entitled you to respect. It was a word used by eager kindergarten teachers to reassure children that they were valued. “Special needs” doesn’t rely on that definition, though there is a clear echo in parents’ insistence that each special needs child is unique (and adorable, and so forth). But lots of kids may have the same, or very similar, maladies, so that they can be grouped together for purposes of education or therapy. “Special needs” doesn’t have to refer to extreme or bizarre conditions; almost any kid with a problem may qualify if their parents are persistent enough, and some of ’em are, because special needs is where the money is.

The phrase seems more like a euphemism than anything else, a way of coating disabilities — mild or severe — with kindergarten cheer. Language so used is ripe for parody, and “special,” which for centuries had a generally favorable connotation, has become an insult. Uttered with a smirk, it means “substandard,” and every kid knows it, just as they understand that students with special needs have something wrong with them. Yet the expression has hung onto a palliative quality in spite of all the currents running the other way.

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