Should We Abandon Use of the Term “Special Needs Ministry?”

Today’s post on whether we should abandon the use of the term “special needs ministry” is the first in a series of Difficult Questions we’ll be addressing over the course of the summer.

What image comes to mind when a child is described as having “special needs?” Do you think of…

  • A child with Down’s Syndrome?
  • A child with autism?
  • A child with cerebral palsy?

More importantly, if you were a parent of a child or a teen with the following conditions would you think of your child as having a “special need” if they…

  • Maintain straight A’s in school with no special services but demonstrate extreme shyness in social situations and has great difficulty in unfamiliar environments?
  • Take medication to help with inattentiveness and disorganization associated with ADHD and work with a tutor for 45 minutes every school day in the resource room for assistance with reading comprehension?
  • Excel on their school’s Science Olympiad team and maintain excellent grades, but struggle with personal hygiene, talk about nothing but Dungeons and Dragons and are oblivious to social cues when around other kids?

My guess is that most parents would not consider the last three children described above as having “special needs.” And almost certainly, most of the kids described would not think of themselves as having “special needs.” I’d argue that our use of the term “special needs” narrows our focus in such a way as to exclude large numbers of kids and families who require some intentional effort and support to be successfully included at church, but fall somewhere outside our existing ministry paradigm.

In the not too distant past, I attended a conference with leaders of disability ministries where an argument was being made that churches needed to indicate their willingness to minister to our target population by placing the symbol on the right on their websites and in their yellow pages ads. In the same way that most parents of kids with emotional or behavioral disabilities (by far and away the most common disabilities in the pediatric population) wouldn’t think that a ministry identified by the symbol to the right would have anything to offer them, most families of kids with significant disabilities wouldn’t think of their child as having a “special need.” Worse yet, most churches don’t recognize the unmet needs of children falling outside their mental model of “special needs.” We radically limit the potential for God to work through our ministries by maintaining a narrow focus upon “special needs.”

Next: What’s the definition of a “special need?”

Updated March 14, 2014

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Emotional girlConfused about all the changes in diagnostic terminology for kids with mental heath disorders? Key Ministry has a resource page summarizing our recent blog series examining the impact of the DSM-5 on kidsClick this link for summary articles describing the changes in diagnostic criteria for conditions common among children and teens, along with links to other helpful resources!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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15 Responses to Should We Abandon Use of the Term “Special Needs Ministry?”

  1. Ann Holmes says:

    I like “special need” since – to me – that includes all! I get that the term might have a different nuance for these ______________ (fill in the blank) families. I like “special need” rather than “affected by disability. SO I’m sure you’ve thought this thru carefully – what do you think the best term is to be family friendly to all? I definitely agree that to overemphasize this focus of a ministry is exclusive rather than inclusive.

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  2. drgrcevich says:

    Hi Ann,

    The topic of what we should call this is coming up three posts down the road. The concepts of disability and inclusion are key.

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  3. I explored the use of the word “special” when referring to disabilities awhile ago at http://curbcut.net/advocacy/dont-call-me-special/. I think “special needs” is fine when referring to a larger group of people than those who have disabilities- perhaps including people in prison, a teenage mother or some of the examples used above, however I am not comfortable using it as a euphemism for disability.

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  4. drgrcevich says:

    Christopher,

    Welcome to the blog! I’m going to use your link in an upcoming post on how the use of the term “special needs” fits in the context of people-first language.

    You’ve got some really nice online resources. Do you have any interest in the topic of how churches can use technology to better serve folks with disabilities? It appears from your blog that you regularly get to a conference on technology and disability.

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  5. Susan Leiby says:

    I’m currently working on Year 2 of our All Are Welcome project (http://www.allarewelcome.info), and struggle every time I am faced with this question. In the form I just designed (a “family information form), I ask for EVERY child in the family, what are their special interests, and what are their special requirements. It is important to know these things for EVERY child. Even a child with no “special need” or “disability” may be served much better being in the same room with their best friend. Or needs to keep their stuffed animal with them for comfort. It’s important to know these things for ALL children.

    Later in the form, I do delve deeper, with a section to complete for those with “special needs or disabilities”. Here we can find out not only about disability needs, but allergies (bee stings, peanuts, etc.), or what kind of environment they are best served in (small group, large group, etc.).

    But I think with the progress of the inclusion model, the goal will be to eventually not have a “special needs ministry” at all. But rather that our places of worship are able to see EVERY individual as a unique child of God, with their own strengths and needs. And that they are then able to meet each of them where they are.

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  6. SNAPPIN' MINISTRIES says:

    I posted on something like this 2 years ago: http://comfortinthemidstofchaos.blogspot.com/2009/03/dont-major-in-minors.html The trouble is, how do we convey meaning to people without a description that helps them recognize what we are doing. TOUGH issue!

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  7. My youngest daughter is developementally delayed. I am co-chair of our new Special Needs Ministry at Church. We changed it from Disabilities Ministry. We felt that was negative. Our ministry stresses inclusion. I too would love to lose the “labels” and everyone just accept everyone for who they are. We have come a long way since the “R” word, even though it is still around. But with one out of every eigthy-eight children being diagnosed with some form of Autrism, how severe or not, the use of the term special needs does not bother me so much. I think it helps when talking about your child or familiy member. People still have the need to understand what it is with your child as opposed to “regular” children, another label that’s out there. We all want to be kind and politically correct to the point we lose focus on what we as “caregivers”, yet another label, are supposed to do. There are those that need our help to do the day to day routine. Special needs is a way to discuss such things and giving those that do not know a heads up. I coach Special Populations, another label, baseball and basketball and my wife and I even made a film called Special Needs. Our tag line for the movie states, “We all have needs, some are just more special than others.” No matter what we say, “A rose is still a rose.”

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  8. drgrcevich says:

    Hi Scott,

    Welcome to the blog! Please feel free to make use of our people and our resources in any way you see fit. We’d be honored to serve you guys in any way you see appropriate.

    Thanks for your comments! I’m working on a post on the advantages and disadvantages of different language to describe what we do and you’ve helped me think about a few things.

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  9. Pingback: Should We Abandon Use of the Term “Special Needs Ministry?” | vangierodenbeck

  10. Ann Kilter says:

    Our church did not have a special needs ministry. Many smaller churches do not. Our kids have varying degrees of autism. It was obvious to most people that our kids were impaired. But our youth leader worked with us…included our kids. We came along on many retreats and mission trips to help out. They became comfortable with our kids, and our kids and other kids benfitted. It is great credit to those christians who loved our kids. My kids are in their 20s now.

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  11. Looking forward to this conversation. As someone who grew up with a disability through the ’60s & ’70s, I have not liked the term “Special Needs” from the very beginning. We worked hard to have the word “special” removed from everything possible only to fully embrace it in this past decade. Additionally, it seems to me, adding the word “needs” to the phrase places additional negative emphasis on people. I don’t like highlighting ones “needs” from the beginning of any conversation.

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    • Scott Bryan Sowers says:

      Over the years, the medical profession has really widened the Austism Spectrum to include so many different syndromes. When I was a child and acted out like many of the kids being diagnosed as autistic today, my prescription was a spanking, which led to an attitude adjustment. I’m not going to go so far as to say that these behaviors are not “real”, but it does bother me that the statistic is now 1 in every 55 children is born with some form of Autism. At this alarming rate, there will come a day when all children are born with Austism, then what? There’s a lot money in the medication business and I’ve known many who went therre adn came back becauseof bad meds. But that’s a different subject. We have come a long way just trying to get rid of the “R” word and disabilites, do we really have to go after the term “Special Needs” now? Evereything has a label; obese, depressed, ugly, skinny, etc. etc. etc. By the way, did you know that mentally retarded is “not” a diagnosis for any Government assistance, etc. My daughter is mildly mentally retarded and Autistic. She is twenty-six years old, a beautiful girl and such a sweetheart, yet she can’t read or write and needs 24/7 care. I chair our Special Needs Ministry at church and I coach Special Populations sports. We are all good with this “label”, it works for us. If you have the where with all to not like the “R” word or the phrases “Disablities” or “Special Needs”, then that’s great, don’t use them. All the labels and medical names and letters, “MD, CP, ADD, ADHD, COPD… MOUSE, are our way of coping with the crosses that we bare and as long as we are the “chosen” ones to care for our “gifts from God”, at least give us a way to share with others, that do not share this privilege, that our parent, child or sibling has some sort of condition without going in to the detail. Special Needs fits that bill nicely. In closing, let me assure you that my daughter and her friends really don’t care one way or the other what “label” you give them, they truly don’t. They don’t know from Adam what you’re even talking about. They like to know they are “Special”. They just want you to love them the way they love you and to be there for them when life around them gets to be confusing and overwhelming. So go and fight your battles for whatever reason, but in my opinion, whether you have disablities or not and you are angry over the use of Special Needs or whatever the “label” of the month is, then you are not as disabled as you think or you have better things to do than worry about what other folks are doing.
      God bless and have a great day.
      Scott

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      • drgrcevich says:

        Hi Scott,

        Allow me to respond to several of your comments…

        I don’t think the pharmaceutical industry has much to do with the increase in the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders. The treatment for autism with the best supporting evidence is applied behavior analysis (ABA). For some families, having a diagnosis eases the process of accessing occupational therapy, speech therapy and special education services.

        I’m not trying to give anyone a “label.” I’m suggesting that there’s a label that our churches are using that presents a barrier to a very large group of kids and families who could benefit from some thoughtfulness and intentionality so they too might contribute their gifts and talents to the Kingdom.

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      • Scott Bryan Sowers says:

        I don’t like labels either, but I’m not ashamed or afraid for my child to be referred to as “special needs”. Everyone has a label of some sort or another… “Bully, Agreessive, Shy, Mean, Bossy, Alchoholic, Drug Addict, Jesus Freak, Crippled, Gorgeous, Handsome, Loner, Crazy, Criminal”, and on and on. These labels describe people and their personality and they all have their own type of treatment, medical or otherwise. Many people live up to their “label” and can never shake it. What I’m saying is that true special needs folks don’t care about labels, their families and friends do. I try to let people know that our special needs ministry is for “everyone” that feels they have needs that are not being met in all walks of like. When our ministry has a function, whether it be a social or a sporting event, the people that get the most out of it are those that volunteer and feel they are not special needs. If you want to talk about inclusion, etc., then let’s bring together everyone that has a special “need” in their life, the bossy, the cripple, the sad, the lonely and see what each has to offer to the other. That being said, those that are considered “normal”, would not show up, thus the separation and the need for some kind of label. Why is everyone trying to include our special needs folks into what others are doing when they can’t even include themselves in what they are doing? It works both ways. As for the medical statement I spoke about. I have seen children get diagnosed and medicated and have bad results and then later get taken off all meds and be fine, but still have their issues. I am not saying that doctors are doing anything wrong. I believe most are sincere in what they are asked to do. But, there is a lot if money in the drug industry and there are billions of tax dollars spent on social and medical benefits and insurance, which is needed by the majority of cases. Lastly, I don’t think we have to worry about challenged people in the Kingdom, as they are truly blessed and offer us more insight into the eyes of the Lord if we just stop and take the time to look into theirs. Sorry I rambeled on. I have to go back to work. Lunch is over. God bless. Scott
        PS- Hey Doc, I invite you go to specialneedsthefilm.com and click on Special Needs Film for more insight into what my wife and I have done to get some messages out. I hope you like it.

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