Have you ever been told that someone in your classroom has 'special needs'? Did you wonder just what that meant? Well, to begin with, I don't particularly like the term, since we all have needs, don't we, many the same and some unique to each of us?

When someone is defined as having special needs, an odd thing happens. We tend to stop focusing on the person; his sense of humor, her great singing voice, for instance, and start to focus on whatever challenge demands 'special' attention. The person feels the difference, and doesn't like it one bit.

Take the butterflies on this page. They cannot walk, and let's pretend for a minute that they need to be more like us to go to school. Now we may be able to come up with some sort of butterfly wheelchair to help them get from place to place (of course we'd have to strap them in pretty tightly). But if we spend all of our time worrying about our special need to have them get around like we do, we miss out on their special gifts. They are beautiful, they can fly, they emerged from, of all things, caterpillars. Miracles, really, that we miss if we spend all of our attention on just one aspect of who they are.

Think of it another way. Imagine that we are in a 3-D movie, and people love coming to watch us in all of our dimensions. Then imagine that the super-duper projector breaks, and now they can only see us in one dimension. How boring, and how easy it becomes to assume that that one dimension defines us. Of course it doesn't, we are much more complicated and interesting than that. But that's all that people tend to see. 

Here's something else I learned about kids who have 'special needs', like the need to use a nebulizer, or a wheelchair, or a seeing-eye dog. They tell me that they want to be liked for who they are, not for what their 'special needs' are. And they are very clear about the difference between who they are and what needs they happen to have. In other words, just because someone has a medical condition called diabetes and needs to take injections several times a day doesn't mean that she is just that 'diabetic kid', period. She is so much more, and she wants you to know that!

Children and teens with special needs for equipment or extra help or ramps going into the rooms or a zillion other things want you to ask whatever questions you'd like to about them. They figure that if you knew about the 'special things' they need to stay healthy and happy in school, then you wouldn't have to spend so much time wondering about them, and you could get on with enjoying the total, complete person, like Katie, or Dominic, or Shaneele. 

So I see 'special needs' as those things about each of us that remind people that the Beatles were right; that we all get by with a little help from our friends. I hope that you'll want to be one of those friends. 

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Joan Fleitas, Ed.D., R.N..
Associate Professor of Nursing, Lehman College, CUNY
Bronx, New York 10468

Last updated: November 14, 2004