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About ‘Special Needs’

A photo collage created by Sharon Lynn Clark | Provided Photos

This issue’s “My Turn” is brought to you in the form of a list. When you’ve been tasked with writing about way-down-deep-in-your-soul beliefs that are as much a part of you as your heart, kidneys and veins in about 600 or so words, perhaps it is best to communicate these beliefs in the form of a list.

This list is in no specific order—maybe—so here goes ….

  1. To quote researcher and storyteller Brene Brown from her recent Netflix special “The Call to Courage,” “Today, I’ll choose courage over comfort. I can’t make commitments for tomorrow, but today I’m (going to) choose to be brave.” For me, “being brave” means allowing my daughter Sarah, who is deaf and also in possession of a million other attributes, to be exactly who she is. It also means that I am open to learning and becoming, seeking knowledge and new perspectives. I think that is true for all of us.
  2. According to the Arizona Office for Americans with Disabilities, early historical accounts say that the ancient Greeks thought deaf people were incapable of education. Furthermore, early religious accounts viewed children afflicted with deafness as evidence of God’s anger. I must ask myself if before my child was born that sentiment had been comparable to the stereotypes I’d heard about people who are deaf. Allow me to say no more about these words. Let us digest them.
  3. Not I, you, your neighbor, your yoga instructor, the bus driver or the cashier at the grocery store needs to validate his or her worth to any other individual. With that said and believed, this human is not afflicted with anything. Well, that’s not completely true. She is 10, which means she is entering “pre-teen-ville” with hormones galore. You might have a similar person dwelling in your home. We should convene and share stories.
  4. Recently, Sarah and I were sitting in a cafe in downtown Frederick, and Sarah was slurping bubbles from a bubble tea through a straw. This occasion was an event. It isn’t on any ordinary Tuesday that she receives this sweet bubbly beverage. But, on this day, she received dividers implanted in her mouth, since we are at the beginning of the “braces milestone.” You might be able to relate, and if not yet, I’m sure you and your families have milestones of your own. As we were sitting there, and she, for a moment, was not thinking about her painful mouth, I asked for her opinions about the topic of “special needs.” We had the following word-for-word conversation.
  5. Me: “Sarah, what do you think about the term special needs?”
    Sarah: “Well, I think it’s a little insulting because (it’s) not just that and that person (who) has special needs. No. Everyone has special needs in many different ways.”
    Me: “Do you think that being deaf is a special need?”
    Sarah: “No. Special needs sounds like it means a disability, and being deaf is definitely not a disability. My answer would be no. Also, ‘disability’ isn’t (really) a real word.”
    I will let her words stand as they are.
  6. In a 2010 study by J. I. Kailes et al titled “Language Is More Than a Trivial Concern,” the researchers contend that the term “special needs” is an “offensive euphemism” that is “patronizing, inappropriate and distancing.”
  7. Let all of us—worthy enough as we are, special and downright fine as is—seek not to use labels in place of connection and understanding. May we recognize our fears of that which we do not understand yet. May we find a tree with its blossoms descending around us, meet another person under it and speak, sign or just stand quietly. May we do as Maya Angelou says and “have the grace to look up and out and into your sister’s eyes and your brother’s face, and say simply, very simply, with hope—‘good morning.’” Thank you.

Sharon Lynn Clark is a proud mother, writer, teacher and community program planner who lives in Frederick with her 10-year-old daughter Sarah, who is deaf. Sharon has worked with organizations in Baltimore and Frederick to create programming uniting hearing and deaf families in Maryland. Feel free to reach out to her at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: This article is a revised version of the original “My Turn” essay published in the July/August 2021 issue of Frederick’s Child.