Search This Blog

Sunday, April 12, 2015

How "special" are their needs?

In this TEDx Talk, "inclusion expert" Torrie Dunlap speaks about society's perception of kids with special needs. These are pretty basic ideas, and I don't think we should have to have an expert talk about these simple things. Unfortunately, many people, especially outside the special needs community, still consider these ideas innovative or "revolutionary". This is why I am sharing this speech with you.

I will now highlight the most relevant parts and give you my point of view:

I proudly showed her the cut out where she would sit in her wheelchair. I will never forget what happened next. She looked up at me and said, “How come I don’t get to sit on the bleachers like the other kids?” 

Many people simply assume kids with disabilities always need some kind of special accommodation: this might be the case, but it is not always so. We should always ask the person instead of making assumptions.

when we use the medical model as our way of perceiving disability we view children who have them as a problem that need fixing, and we separate them from their peers without disabilities. This is why we often lead with pity- we feel sorry for people who are broken and need fixing and we feel charitable by helping them

As I have said before, disability should not be seen as a problem that needs to be fixed. A kid with special needs is just like any other kid, disability is a part of him and there is nothing wrong and nothing to feel sorry for.

We feel good that we have done something kind for “those poor children.” We make a lot of assumptions here that children who have disabilities have a poor quality of life, can’t learn and can’t achieve.

It makes me really mad when people assume kids with disabilities can't be happy, successful and have a good quality of life just because they can't walk or talk or do something that is considered very important. The problem is that many people who do not have special needs see a disability (for example being on a wheelchair) as something very negative and they don't think they could be happy in that situation. This idea is so present in their minds that they can't even change their opinion when they see a happy kid in a wheelchair, because their prejudice is too strong.

When speaking about the social model, Torrie says we should view societal barriers as the problem, and not the child. Disability is perceived not as a negative, but as neutral. I think this is a much better mindset, because the child's disability would not be a problem if society accepted it and embraced diversity instead of separating the people who are considered "different".

Dunlap also speaks about events targeted at kids with special needs:

Why do children who have a disability label need their own special rodeo? What message are we sending to kids when we create a separate rodeo just for them?

I think it is good to have events for kids with disabilities, but these events should be related to their needs (for example wheelchair sports events), and even in this case it would be nice for kids without disabilities to be able to participate and try something new. In case of a rodeo, which is a general event, I think it is wrong to have a separate event just for them. All kids, with or without special needs should be invited and they should be able to have fun together.

I know that as adults we worry about, and we care about kids who might get left out of the prom experience, because they are different. High school is a tough place. But, what if we instead looked through a different lens and put our energy toward making sure that every high school prom is welcoming and inclusive to all the students who attend the school?

Special proms for teens with disabilities are not a solution: they would probably feel even more excluded, as if they were not good enough for the "normal" prom. We need to focus on making the existing prom an awesome experience for students with and without disabilities.

I wonder what underlying message we are sending, both to the teens with disabilities who may hear us say that they aren’t welcome at a school event on their campus with kids they have gone to school with, and also to the volunteer teen “escorts” and what message we are sending to them about pity and helplessness and separation by ability. And, really, would you have wanted your mom watching you at your prom through a video feed?

The fact that volunteer students get "credits" for helping with special prom makes it look like something that you wouldn't do if it wasn't for this credit. It also makes them think that they have to pity their schoolmates with special needs and that they can't take part in the regular prom. I know that parents of kids with special needs very often worry about them, but a video feed at prom is too much. Security staff would be enough.

I leave you with these questions, and I hope these ideas will soon be too common for a TEDTalk.

How do we want to be included in our communities? How do we want our children to be regarded? As something fragile, broken and “special” or as people who have a right to belong in our communities? I believe that when we examine our own mental models toward disability, we won’t default to pity and charity but will focus our efforts on making our society accessible to everyone, and everyone will benefit.


  1. I am an autistic student and will be the first resource student to join my school's honors institute. I hope to change perceptions on an autistic person's abilities. If I wanted to be average, I would have been a C student. I don't see myself as fragile. If I were "fragile", could I squat 90 pounds? Please. Would my music teacher have made me audition for symphonic band if I couldn't do it? No. I don't know where these people are coming from.

    1. That's exactly what I mean! :) I wish everyone saw the potential and abilities of people with special needs


What do you think?