The Problem With “Special”

For most of my life, I was branded as “special.” That’s what happens when you have any kind of disability. (I’ve held off on writing about my learning disability on my blog for a number of reasons. The main reason is the issue of labeling and diagnosis. As an adult who has done a lot of research, I firmly believe I was misdiagnosed. I don’t deny that I’m wired differently and have places in my brain that just don’t click. But during my adult life, a few different psychologists verified that I was probably misdiagnosed. I may write more about that in another post. I haven’t decided yet.)

When you have any kind of disability, you typically get the label of “special needs” and people focus more on what you can’t do than what you can do, which, not surprisingly, can make you focus more on what you can’t do than what you can as you grow up. It’s like there’s this unspoken rule that you’re supposed to wear the “special needs” label proudly and aspire to become a motivational speaker.

I bought into it until I was well into my teens. I got it into my head that I was going to be a motivational speaker. What I couldn’t vocalize was that I ran with this idea because I didn’t think I was capable of anything else. I can’t blame one single person for this mindset. Parents, teachers, and society in general were all equally responsible. It’s what we’ve all been taught. It’s both nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault.

Then I watched this amazing TED talk by Stella Young, and she took all the words right out of my mouth. I want to share with you some specific ways in which the label of “special” has been damaging to me.

1.) It was dehumanizing. It’s not empowering to tell someone they can be a motivational speaker if you imply that they have to settle for that because they will never be a productive member of society otherwise.

2.) It gave me a completely inaccurate picture of my own abilities. It amazed my loved ones when I got my driver’s license, had several positive work experiences, and got married. Because it amazed them, it amazed me. Again, this is what we’ve all been taught is normal. Maybe it’s normal, but normal and healthy are not interchangeable.

3.) Even though I was labeled as “special”, I was not valued. People with disabilities often lose their true identity to the “special needs” label. As someone who’s gone through the school system with a learning disability, I will tell you that teachers and case managers seldom see us as individuals. (The issue of misdiagnosis and inaccurately diagnosing various learning disabilities is a huge contributor to this problem, but that really deserves its own post.) We live in a world where people think reading a paragraph on a disability or condition is a substitute for getting to know someone. Yes, I’ve struggled royally in math and science. (I’m convinced the left portion of my brain is just not in there, to be honest!) Yes, bright light sometimes hurts my eyes. Yes, I get a bit agitated (ok, sometimes very agitated!) when my to-do list gets too long. You can read all those facts in any article or medical journal. But those sources will not tell you who I am. Those sources do not tell you that Kati is smart, funny, adores her husband, has way too many books, and knits way too much. Those are the things that make me who I am, and those are the things that were seriously under-valued when I was in school.

I’m referring to my learning disability in this post, but the “special needs” dilemma is not unique to learning disabilities. This was not an easy post to write and I’m sure people will have strong opinions about it, but that doesn’t make it any less important to share.


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