Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

From a very early age, I felt as though I was different from everyone else. I am someone who has an auditory processing disorder, has elements of dyslexia and elements of dysgraphia.  In social and academic settings, there have been times when I felt frustrated that I was not like everyone else, who were either very extroverted or could process things quicker than me. I was distraught a lot of the time and required extra support for many different things, which included going to a speech therapist as well as receiving additional help from learning assistants and tutors.

There were times where I said to myself, “why was I born with this condition?”

However, as the years went by and I had the right support around me, my learning difficulties stopped holding me back and instead began giving me a new and unique perspective on life. It created a great sense of resilience, which people who go through any type of challenges tend to develop over time. It pushed me to challenge anyone who doubted my ability, and that motivated me to go to university.

While going through this time of challenges and achievements, there was one particular term that made me angry, and that was special needs.

I am writing to ask for one thing: stop using the term ‘special needs’.

The term ‘special needs’ is rooted in the assumption that we are unable to achieve the same things as everyone else. Then, when we do achieve something, the negative stigma around our ability to succeed means that we are treated as if we have climbed Mount Everest.

It is exceedingly frustrating to hear a phrase which suggests that we are distinct from everyone else in terms of what we can achieve throughout our lives—a phrase which places us in a box and isolates us from other people.

This is not to say that we should not treat learning difficulties with a caring mind. When we use the word special regarding learning difficulties, we are putting these needs and challenges on a pedestal that projects us as ‘unordinary.’ Whereas in reality, we are like everyone else in society who have challenges in their lives. Not only does this word portray this idea that we are out of the ordinary, it is also extremely patronising. Although it may seem like you are trying to be helpful and recognise our difficulties, in matter of fact, you are automatically assuming that we are not meant to succeed in our academic and social lives.

In a progressive society, there is no place for terms that are offensive and have such negative connotations.

Instead of using words like special needs or special education, we should be using words that do not feed into these detrimental stigmas.

In my opinion, additional needs is a far better phrase for all of us to begin using, as it does not suggest that someone who requires extra help cannot succeed; it does the opposite. You may need more help to reach your potential, and there are times when people with or without learning difficulties need a bit more support on certain things. That should be normalised for all of us!

Through the use of the word special, you are making a grand scene out of us and insinuating that we are entirely different from everyone else, and that our difficulties should be ranked higher than those of our classmates, colleagues, family and friends.

We should use different approaches when talking about, and accommodating, different difficulties, but this should not translate to one difficulty being valued more, or considered of greater significance, than others. 

Ultimately, all difficulties, whether they be mental, physical or emotional, need to be valued the same, despite the varying methods we use to address them. By using words like special, we are no longer valuing these difficulties equally, and this is harmful.       

I just want my difficulties to be valued as fundamentally equal to those of the people around me.