‘Sped’: from Special Education to Especially Offensive

By Kendall Albrecht

Sped. The term, technically an abbreviation for ‘special education,’ grows in usage among young adults. Although not derogatory in essence, the context in which the majority of individuals apply the word has made it so. By mindlessly making comments such as “you are such a sped” when a friend behaves stupidly, or “I should be in sped math” after failing an exam, people associate the special education system with individuals of lesser intelligence and value, promoting ableist ideas. 

Because the term continues to circulate, becoming a part of modern slang, many fail to recognize the issues behind it, allowing it to be used in place of widely offensive terms without raising speculation. In fact, Urban Dictionary, a site on which teens clarify the meaning of slang words, defines sped as not only “An insult used when someone does something stupid” but also “A derogatory term meaning r*****.” Sadly, people expect to see definitions such as these under the word, despite its simple true meaning: special education. Special education does not equal stupidity. Special education equals opportunities for those who require differing goals and alternate pathways to achieve them. While the term ‘sped’ itself is not considered a slur, its continued use as a simile for one makes it equally harmful. 

While using the term in its intended context, such as “we directed more of the school’s budget to sped,” or “my sister has succeeded greatly thanks to the sped program,” raises no issues, high school hallways hardly experience positive associations with the word. Some use it in a derogatory manner knowingly, thinking it does not matter as long as they avoid the r-word, however, the intent remains unchanged. Others simply follow trends, using it in the way their peers do, not thinking about the true meaning behind their words. Either way, eliminating the direct use of slurs does not mean eliminating offensive remarks. Using the term sped as a replacement for the r-slur, or in a way that suggests negative connotations, does equivalent harm. Therefore, individuals must consider the truth behind their words before jumping on the bandwagon of modern language.