“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Friday, April 18, 2014

The "special" label

A student of mine, a woman with a physical impairment, recently wrote in an article synopsis of her experience in her church. The church was one where there were few people with disabilities. She being largely the only one there, was treated as special, was spoken of as special and anything she ever did was regarded as remarkable because she was special. She wrote of how she tired of this designation, wishing she would just be seen as another regular person attempting to live her life for Christ like anybody else. She has challenges in life, they have challenges in life.  She then wrote about how she now attends a different church where many people with disabilities attend, and she is just another congregational member. She is no longer "special".

The word special is often associated with people with impairments whether it is special education or special ministry. Merriam Webster defines it as "different from what is normal or usual; unusual in a good way : better or more important than others: especially important or loved: more than is usual." Is that the truth of who persons with impairments are? If it is, then why are we so desperate as a society to prenatally diagnose and abort people with disabilities? If it is not, then why are we being pitiably perjorative and disingenuous in reference to people with a particular characteristic?
The fact of the matter is that special, when associated with an individual, actually implies distance, unfamiliarity, being something other.
I don't refer to my friends with impairments as special.  They are just my friends. I wouldn't refer to my child with a disability as special, he is just my child. Those who work with students in special education experience the sympathy stigma that Goffman (1963) refers to. People "distance" themselves from special educators by saying they are so special in that they can have an amazing amount of patience towards people with impairments. The distancing is in seeing themselve as not having patience, not being able to interact with people they would designate as special. By labeling those who do not see persons with impairments as different or special, the average person dismisses themselves from interactions with those perceived as different or special. However, if I am willing to change in my perception of others, they may have a speciality in that they are particularly good at something, but I would not allow their impairment to be something that would distance them from me by saying they were special (implying that I am not because I do not have an impairment).

I don't think people with disabilities generally want to be thought of as different independent of the motivation of those differentiating them (out of pity, or paternalism, or even good motives). They just want to be Bob or Sally or Mary or Fred. A human being.



Michael De Rosa said...

I find the same. Humans beings like being treated a human beings

Anonymous said...

I believe that it is uncomfortable for most people to feel singled out for one reason or another, and that disabled people are, without a doubt, not an exception to this. Nobody is going to enjoy feeling alienated or different simply for being the person that God created them to be. Labels are dangerous because they take away a person's individuality and instead assigns them to a "category" or "group" to which they are then made to feel forced to adhere to. Over time these people risk having their entire sense of self altered to meet the expectations imposed upon them by the labels they have been given. When labels are applied to entire groups of people, they serve to differentiate people from one another, often exaggerating differences instead of promoting the discovery of our similarities as human beings.
I can completely understand why the friend of Dr. McNair's would search out a new church where she was able to feel valued as a human being, and as a member of the congregation, the same as everybody else, without being made to feel different or being unnecessarily singled out for her contributions. I believe that her treatment by members of her first church was probably unintentional and that it is likely that nobody intended to make her feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately though their overcompensation in their attempts to make her feel welcome actually had the opposite affect and instead made her feel separated from the group instead of a part of it.

Anonymous said...

Many of us might not realize that by calling someone "special" we are in fact labeling. In truth, those unfamiliar with people with disabilities are sometimes afraid to regard them inappropriately. Thus, we go by the term given by society. "Special" can in fact take away from that person and a point well taken is that all of us want to be referred to and treated as a human being. I don't believe anyone likes being categorized. Sometimes, unknowingly, again because of lack of knowledge or exposure, one not only thinks of a disabled individual in a "special" way but talks and interacts with them in this same manner as well. This was a well-written blog that made me reflect on how I personally am guilty of this and how I will change it.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your blog. I agree everyone wants to be seen as an individual and not labeled. People view “being special”, as a defect. But in actuality as you mentioned, if they go by the definition it means just the opposite. I am a substitute teacher and I have subbed at numerous schools. I always notice that the special education classes are secluded off in the back or in the corner of the school. They are not integrated within the regular education classes. students and regular education teachers distance themselves from special education as it is, but with classrooms being put in the back or corner of the school it gives a out of sight is out of mind perspective. I think that if special education was moved next to regular education classes that children would not view the special education students as “special”. I am confident that it would change their outlook, knowing that they are in the classroom next to them. Integrating all of the students will help everyone be more open minded. Overall people needs to realize that everyone was made by God and God does not make mistakes. We are all “special” in our own unique way.

Celest Estrada said...

I believe that labeling individuals that have disabilities as “special” limits their capabilities. For those who have disabilities it does not define who they are as a person. In many ways those that have disabilities automatically have a stigma attached to them for no apparent reason expect for that they are not “normal” to society’s standards. Disabled individuals just want to be accepted and loved. They desire to be viewed as a human being; they have feelings and needs just like people that are not disabled. There are also many disabled people that have amazing gifts and talents. “Normal” people never discover these things about the disabled because they are too busy living their normal lives. They do not invest time to truly know the disabled and befriend them. We can all learn from each other disabled or not! Even if it is learning to appreciate and enjoy your life because you see someone who loves theirs despite all the challenges they may face as a result of the disability they have. “Normal” people can learn so much from those who are disabled. Besides acquiring friendships, one can really learn what God’s purpose for life is all about. I know that I have had the experience of knowing and meeting some amazing people and to society’s standards they are disabled. These people are living examples of how God’s grace is always sufficient!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with this blog. Everyone despite disability should be treated the same way. I do think it is confusing sometimes to know if a person with a disability prefers some special treatment. I think people at church have good motives in just wanting to make sure people with disabilities feel cared for and loved, but I guess there is an extent in which in can go to far. Understanding how people with disabilities feel is certainly helpful in learning what to not do.

Anonymous said...

I too find it uncomfortable to single someone a=out and to call them special. Though I am not what the average person calls disabled I have had my struggles. I have had 7 different surgeries ranging from jaw surgery to shoulder to ACL reconstruction. My family refers to me as the "special child" or "million dollar baby". When I accomplish a task like making the college swim team or becoming a swim coach I am seen as someone who finally is normal. until an injury occurs them I am that special child once again. No one likes to be labeled. All anyone wants to is to fit in and be treated like everyone else is being treated. I think people view the disabled as special because of their disabilities and they feel sorry for them. I do not wish to feel sorry for. Neither do they, they have grown up this way and to them this is normal.
I completely understand why this perosn would seek out a differant church. I know I would have. If i feel like I am being juedged or they look at me differeant because I am special then they do not understand me and my needs. the disabled just want to live life, love God and makes friends just like the rest of us. We as people should learn from them.
The treatment at the church their may have been unintentional, they could be uneducated. It could have been the perfect time to educate them that the disabled are no different than you or I. However, teaching that to a congregation may not work and finding a church that already knows and understands this persons needs is a much simpler way to go about it and is the same way I would have as well

Anonymous said...

It is a shame that the church (out of all places) continued to point out to everyone that your friend was different. Even if it was not their intention and they genuinely wanted to make her feel good and she was like everyone else, they went about it in the wrong way. Maybe it is because many of them do not have much experience around people with disabilities. It makes sense if she is one of the few members of the church, and if the other members do not know anybody in their personal lives that live with one. I think the church would benefit from spending some time researching and reaching out to people who do have them so as to understand them better. I can only imagine how frustrating it would be to live day to day trying to fit into the social norms of society when your own church constantly points out that you are not.

As I’ve gotten older that I’ve realized that the words “disability,” and “Special Education” are labeled as something bad, or it is looked down upon and it frustrates me as the time passes. As an instructional assistant for the past eight years I know that my students impairments do not make them any different than the next kid. My students are very bright, creative, and intelligent, and if anything they have to work twice as hard for a good grade. I also do not associate my friends that do have disabilities as disabled either; they are just my friends. If I were to put the shoe on the other foot, I would despise it if the world went around associating me with things that I was born with/without instead of acknowledging me for my character.