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 pejorative 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.