The consequences of saying ‘special’ but meaning ‘separate’

Worldwide, children with disabilities often face exclusion and barriers in everyday life. Schools sometimes create various programs for students with ‘special’ needs, and community events sometimes offer a separate entrance or an alternative experience for children and people with disabilities. A common characteristic of the majority of such events, is the reliance on separation of children with disabilities from children who are typically developing. In the TedTalk below, Torrie Dunlap, CEO of the non-profit Kids Included Together, discusses the problem of separating children with disabilities from the mainstream community. Dunlap states that, according to the World Health Organization and the World Bank, “children with disabilities are among the world’s most marginalized and excluded children.”

Dunlap suggests that the key to challenging this status quo is in our ‘mental mindset’ towards disability. Discussing how the various modern special needs programs serve to isolate and separate children with disabilities from mainstream society, and furthermore, to force them into forming their own communities, Dunlap describes the three main mental models towards disability that can challenge or enable the current societal view of people with disabilities. There are three models: the medical model, the social model, and the biopsychosocial model. The medical model of disability views people with disabilities as sick, and in need of fixing. According to Dunlap, this view results in seeing children with disabilities as problems that need to be solved or cured before they can join their ‘normal’ peers. In contrast, the social model of disability states that societal barriers are the issue, as opposed to the disability itself. Finally, the biopsychosocial model “accepts that disability labels and diagnosis are an important part of a person’s identity, and also understands that the environment plays a role in someone’s ability to function.” This model is employed by both Dunlap’s non-profit and the World Health Organization.

As a national, or even global, community, these models are often utilized to make sense of the world. The most common mental model around disability is the medical model. Dunlap questions what would occur if society took the intentional approach to change the common mental model around disability, stating, “What if we decided to see children with disabilities as children first, and not as a disability, or as a label, or as special?” She offers the example of common events such as visiting Santa or high school prom that plan separate days, or even separate events, for children with disabilities, and asks why the events themselves seem to struggle with simply adjusting to be accessible for all children. “What if we could design an event that could meet the needs of all children, and actually enhanced the experience for everyone?” Dunlap inquires. In the end, what are the unintended consequences of society’s tendency to separate children with disability? What are we teaching our children about who pity should be ascribed to? How do we want to shape our community, and our community’s capacity for inclusion?

This video may begin with a commercial which was not chosen by or for the benefit of DisAbility Rights Galaxy.

Emily Pate is a third-year student at Seattle University interested in Strategic Communications, learning Spanish, and working with non-profits. Her work for Rooted In Rights is focused on discussing current events in the community of people with disabilities. Her experience previous to Rooted In Rights includes writing broadcasts for KBOO radio in Portland, OR, and managing a neighborhood blog in the Seattle community. In addition to work, Emily enjoys drawing, spending time with her friends and family, and backpacking.

One response to “The consequences of saying ‘special’ but meaning ‘separate’

  1. I am a board member of the Jefferson County nonprofit DASH – Disability Awareness Starts Here! but am commenting on this subject as an individual with disabilities, although I believe other DASH members would agree.

    In connection with this use of “special” in connection with people with disabilities, there is the general misnomer “special treatment” that in reality simply means equal access. Wherever accessibility to programs, public spaces and services is denied to people with disabilities it is those who DO have access that are receiving special treatment.

    I deeply believe that making sense of the world requires recognizing and working to correct common perceptions of all reverse-meaning language such as this.

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