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Understanding ‘Special Needs’ and ‘Additional Needs’: A Call for more Inclusive Language

By: The Autistic Teacher


In the sphere of education and society at large, we often encounter terms like "special needs" and "additional needs" when referring to individuals with disabilities. These expressions, while common, have different connotations and can significantly affect how we perceive and assist people with disabilities. In the educational setting, for instance, the term SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) is commonplace. At one point, we even had AENCO (Additional Educational Needs Coordinator).


The Implications of 'Special Needs'

I must admit, I have a particular aversion to the term "special needs". The reason is simple: it implies otherness and segregation. When we employ the phrase "special needs," it can unintentionally reinforce the notion that individuals with disabilities are fundamentally different from those without disabilities. This perception can lead to negative stigmas and segregated environments, instead of fostering inclusivity and understanding.


Is 'Additional Needs' a Better Term?

Comparatively, the term "additional needs" seems slightly more palatable. It acknowledges everyone's unique requirements, while emphasising the need for accommodations within classrooms and other settings. However, critics argue that both these terms can make individuals with disabilities feel alienated or different from the rest of society. Despite intentions to identify and accommodate their needs, it may inadvertently contribute to a sense of otherness or exclusion.


Advocating for Equal Rights

Labeling individuals with disabilities as having "special needs" can perpetuate a sense of charity or benevolence, rather than acknowledging and upholding their rights as equal members of society. Conversely, using the term "additional needs" can assist in shifting the discourse towards recognising the inherent value and rights of individuals with disabilities. But is that enough?


The Medical Model vs. the Social Model

The term "special needs" is frequently associated with the medical model of disability, which perceives disability as a problem that requires fixing or curing. This perspective often leads to a focus on interventions and treatments, rather than addressing the systemic barriers and discrimination that individuals with disabilities encounter. On the other hand, "additional needs" aligns more closely with the social model of disability. This model highlights the importance of removing barriers and creating inclusive environments that accommodate the diverse needs of all individuals.


Fostering Inclusivity

As a teacher, I'm acutely aware of the different support needs within my classroom. Failing to address these needs would be detrimental to the students. My preference is to use ‘additional’ instead of 'special', while shifting our focus towards inclusivity. We should aim to view each individual's unique strengths and abilities. By celebrating what individuals can do and providing support where needed, we can create a more inclusive and empowering environment for everyone.


Written by The Autistic Teacher


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