A Brief Guide to Advocacy for Special Needs Families


If you’re reading this, you very likely have a child, sibling, cousin, nice, nephew, other family member, or friend who would be classified as having special needs. Of course, even if you don’t, this article might still contain useful information for you, as it is my hope it will help you interact with compassion and respect with any special needs you might encounter in your life in general. Regardless, the following is, as best I can manage it, a brief guide on how to advocate for your special needs child, family member, or friend when they can’t, and to encourage them to advocate for themselves when they can.

What’s Advocacy?

Of course, before we proceed, it behooves us to make sure we have our terminology straight. I mean, not that I can get anything straight mind you (queer puns!), but still.

Advocacy quite simply means to support a particular cause, idea, or value(s). In this case, we’re talking about the advocacy of basic human rights. Similar to causes like gay rights advocacy and advocacy against racism, sexism, etc, we ultimately just want to spread a general attitude of respect, acceptance, and humane treatment of our fellow human beings. Here, we’re talking about a particular sub-set of these general attitudes and ideals: special needs advocacy, or simply put, the support of the respectful and ethical treatment of individuals with special needs, which covers a variety of conditions ranging from ADHD to autism, Tourette Syndrome, Down Syndrome, and a whole lot of others things in between (that list is far from exhaustive). Some of these conditions are similar, many are radically different from each other, but the umbrella term “special needs” covers a variety of things that might affect one’s physical or mental ability to participate in day-to-day life in one way or another.

Start by Changing your Mindset

It’s common for people to see special needs individuals of all stripes as somehow “broken,” or that something is “wrong” with them. Before you can be an advocate for your child, family member or friend, you need to change the way you look at their special needs in the first place. While they may be unable to do certain things in the same way as you, or at all, this does not mean any thing is wrong with them, or that they should be pitied. That’s patronizing. Recognize their limitations and work around them. Exercise your sense of empathy. Offer help where you can and where it’s wanted or needed, but don’t treat them as generally incapable. Further, recognize that their special needs status may offer them a unique perspective or other particular advantages. A special needs classification can certainly bring challenges and hardships — and that’s where your empathy comes in (just remember, pity is patronizing) — but ultimately it’s just a different way of being, not inherently better or worse than any other way. When it comes down to it, the special needs individual in your life is just a person, so treat them like one.

Avoid Slurs

Trigger warning: if you are easily hurt by derogatory language towards special needs individuals, consider skipping to the next heading

In the vein of respect, and changing your own mindset, there are a handful of words and terms you simply should not use, nor should you tolerate other people using them. Perhaps the biggest culprit here is the word retard — which literally hurts to type for me, but it needs to be said — never, ever use this word to refer to anyone, special needs or otherwise, excepting when you have to use it simply to tell another person what to avoid. It perpetuates the belief that special needs individuals are “wrong” or “broken” (see above), and it is an insult to many because of the prevailing social attitude that being special needs is markedly undesirable. Other words to never say unless it’s to tell someone else to avoid them are Idiot, Imbecile, Invalid, Insane, and moron. This list is not exhaustive.

Stand up for Them

And encourage them to stand up for themselves. Ultimately, this is the core of special needs advocacy; once you’ve done the legwork of changing your own mindset, you need to contend with those out there in the world who either don’t want to or don’t yet know that they should. If your child is being bullied, encourage them to tell their teacher when it happens, and arrange a meeting with said teacher yourself to discuss the issue. If you hear people insulting special needs individuals, or using any of the slurs mentioned above (or any others not on that list), tell them that’s not okay, and encourage the special needs person in your life to do the same if they are up to it.

Finally, you want to try and help your child be an advocate for themselves whenever possible. This is important, because listening to special needs individuals tell you their needs, and how you can be respectful and helpful to them is the most valuable insight you’re going to get in the matter, and they deserve the right to advocate for themselves.

Ultimately, this is a big topic, too big to be covered in an article this short, but if you can stop thinking of special needs people as broken or wrong, if you can avoid slurs, if you can stand up for them, and if you can help them to stand up and advocate for themselves, you’re doing something right, which is sadly a lot more than many people in this world can rightly claim.