An Open Letter to Parents Who Use the Term “Special Needs”

Kelly Dawson
5 min readApr 29, 2021

The majority of the disabled community wants you to just…stop.

An image of the California coast, with jagged rocks leading into the ocean and wild green plants and pink and yellow flowers at the edge.
Photo by Kelly Dawson

I’ve always loved advice columns. I remember reading the Dear Abby series in the local paper after my mom was finished, re-reading American Girl how-to books from cover to cover, and getting (questionable) tips from magazines as a teen. Advice is part of life. We all seek it out, whether we look for it in print or ask for it from friends and family. It’s nice to have a problem that feels solvable after reading or listening to words of experience.

A few years ago, I began writing about my experiences as a disabled woman. I’ve written about what it’s like to walk down the street, make friends, pay for things, and consider motherhood. I’ve discussed the ins-and-outs of traveling in the past and what my future adventures hold. I’ve also chatted about my disability on the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend. Once I became more open about this part of my life, something I didn’t expect happened: I was asked to give advice. Non-disabled parents of disabled kids started emailing me regularly with questions, wondering if they’re doing the right things. “How did you feel after such-and-such happened?” they would say, pointing to school accommodations or remarks on the playground or medical recommendations. I would do my best to reply to them, mentioning that I have a physical disability and can only truly speak to that perspective. Some parents would say thank you and disappear, others would check in every now and then, and one became a good friend.

A question that never reached my inbox until recently was, “I prefer using the term ‘special needs,’ why should I stop?” These parents were responding to a tweet I wrote, echoing the widely-accepted sentiment within the disabled community that “special needs” does more harm than good. This opinion has been written about before—like here, and here, and here—and basically, the majority of the disabled community would like to be referred to as “disabled.” Full stop. The emails I received about “special needs” weren’t like the others. They were mostly defensive, and wanted me to agree that there could be exceptions to the disabled community’s 30-year-old ask.

I don’t think this is a particularly unusual stance for those who use this term, because it can…

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Kelly Dawson

i write, i edit, then i write again. | kellymdawson.com | instagram: @kellydawsonwrites