Comment & Analysis
Nov 12, 2019

People with Special Needs Deserve Respect. Newspapers Must Take Note

Newspapers wield considerable influence – they must be careful to write in a respectful way, writes Julie Leenane

Julie LeenaneAssistant Opinion Editor
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

A recent headline in the Times read: “Pupils Lose Out as £400 million Diverted to Special Needs.” Or, to crudely paraphrase its implications, “Normal Kids Mistreated to Pay for Special Kids”.

People with special needs are very familiar with this doctrine, along with old, worn-out tropes arguing that facilitating everyone to reach their potential is somehow to the detriment of the many. After significant backlash on Twitter, the headline was changed to “Schools Struggling to Meet Cost of Special Needs Support” – a far more prudent introduction to an article which rightly questions not the merit of funding special education, but rather the shortcomings of a system being met with increased demands.

The point of the article in question was a fair one: in light of more schoolchildren qualifying for resources, education budgets are coming under strain. But it does not quite fit the bill of its initial headline, which implied that increased special education funding is, in some hideous, ableist world, a categorically bad thing.


That the blatantly offensive headline was changed is of only passing significance. That no one flagged it before it went online in the first place is cause for much deeper concern – the damage, so to speak, has already been done. A popular newspaper has already endorsed a fundamentally ableist notion.

This notion, compounding an “us and them” viewpoint, is detrimental not only to the wellbeing of people with special needs, but to our society as a whole. It disregards the principle that a rising tide lifts all boats and that by investing in everybody, we can only improve the world we live in. The suggestion that removing barriers to children achieving their full potential could be a bad thing illustrates a particularly insidious line of thinking – in short, not everybody deserves an equal shot. This speaks not only to special needs education, but to deeper fault lines in society surrounding class, race and all questions of privilege. To the privileged, equality feels like oppression.

Somebody wrote that headline, somebody approved it, and a whole host of people clearly didn’t see anything wrong with it before putting it out into the world

Broadly speaking, the words we use surrounding people with special needs have been improving, with emphasis in the last number of years on person-first language. This entails the use of language that prioritises personhood before disability. For example, a person who has a disability, rather than somebody who is disabled. Somebody who has autism, rather than an autistic person. It is a small semantic change of great significance, and puts the dignity and personhood of a human being before all other considerations.

Such a headline making it into the Times, however, illustrates that, despite any such progress, old attitudes can still prevail. Somebody wrote that headline, somebody approved it, and a whole host of people clearly didn’t see anything wrong with it before putting it out into the world. Having worked a long, full-time summer with children across a range of special needs, the progress, both incremental and incredible, which can be made given the right support was self-evident. To suggest that the school system should be in any way faulted for diverting funds to children with special needs, when it facilitates them in a far more immersive and formative environment, fundamentally misunderstands the point of education. The Times, and media outlets as a whole, must consider this.

It boils down to the issue of advocacy. If somebody with a disability refers to themselves as “disabled”, let them advocate for themselves in that way. Let a person with autism refer to themselves as autistic, or use whatever language they see fit. People must be at liberty to adopt terminology they deem most appropriate for their own lives. However, in detached reporting on systemic issues like funding, an emphasis on person-first and respectful language should be mandated.

The suggestion that someone must “lose out” so that people with special needs can prosper is detrimental and offensive. Media plays an incredibly formative role in the language we use, and this in turn shapes our attitudes. Newspapers and other outlets must take greater care in their reporting when talking about issues relating to people with special needs: be it in education, accessibility or any number of concerns. It isn’t political correctness gone mad. It’s common human decency – and we need to do better.

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