the difference between "special needs" and "disability"

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Special Needs and Disability

I’ve got to admit that when I joined the “special needs” community a decade ago by way of giving birth to my daughter with Down syndrome, I was confused with all the “special needs” this and that. “Disability“, I was and am completely used to, both as a person with disabilities and as a professional working in the field of disability, I was used to “disability”.

But “special needs”? I wasn’t sure about it all, it really didn’t seem to make sense.

It seemed to me that the words were being used fairly interchangeably, but that most parents of kids with non-visible disabilities like Autism or with intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome, preferred the term “special needs” and used it way more than they’d use “disabled” (- if “disabled” was even used at all).

So what do they both mean anyway?

dis-a-bled: [dis-ey-buh-ld] 

1. crippled; injured; incapacitated.


2. (used with a plural verb) persons who are crippled, injured, or incapacitated

I’m disabled – but I’m not, as puts it, “crippled, injured; incapacitated.”

No, in fact, I think I’m quite highly able and in full capacity of my own self.

So what do we have here? To me, we have a pretty inaccurate descriptive word that doesn’t mean a lot. It’s a word that harkens to the “medical model” of disability; that is, ” a sociopolitical model by which illness or disability, being the result of a physical condition intrinsic to the individual (it is part of that individual’s own body), may reduce the individual’s quality of life, and cause clear disadvantages to the individual.” (- see wikipedia).

It’s saying that because I can’t hear without hearing aids, because I can’t see without glasses, because I can’t mentally function without drugs or care and because my brain switches off when under stress, I’m “crippled, injured; incapacitated.”

And that would be a definition of “disabled”, of “disability”.

What then is are “special needs”?  Are they any different from typical needs, or from the definition of disability/disabled?

According to, “special needs” are:

Special Needs: 

The special educational requirements of those with learning difficulties, emotional or behavioral problems, or physical disabilities.

So it appears that they are educational requirements.

“Special needs” is about education “disability” is about your body, your brain, your senses being wired and tapped in a unique way.

I have a hunch that it’s more than this, of course, as used by parents of kids with disabilities.

“Special needs” has a softer sound to it. Like, “my kid is NORMAL; s/he just has some needs that are singular, uncommon!” “Special needs” doesn’t sound quite as stigmatized as “disabled” does; doesn’t sound as… oh, “wheelchair bound” or “crippled“.

It’s just kind of like, ‘little Johnny is remarkable’ and not so much ‘little Johnny has constant seizures.”

I think a big problem in all of this is the cloak of doom n’ gloom that surrounds the word “disability”. We – as a society – seem to dislike the word “disability”. We just don’t dig it.

But we don’t have an actual word to replace it that works.

So people within the disabled community have gone about reclaiming the word “disabled”, taking it within the tribal sort of context, placing the social model of disability on it, and giving the medical model the bird. Cool, that works, we can do this.

Only, by keeping “special needs” on the mainstream market, by using “special needs” interchangeably with “disability”, we are weakening both, losing the value and meaning of both.

The words are not interchangeable.

Many kids without disabilities are on the special needs track in school; many people with special needs do not have a disability. Many people with a disability do not have special needs.

 “disability” DOES NOT EQUAL “special needs”

And – while we are talking about it – “special needs” is just as inaccurate term as “disability” is – because who on earth does not have special needs? WE ALL DO. The word is, in and of itself, just flat out misleading, grouping together people in an educational setting and saying, “these kids need to be taught differently than everyone else” – but as a former teacher, I can tell you with conviction that EVERYONE needs to be taught differently than EVERYONE else! We all learn in unique ways; we all have needs that are special unto ourselves!

“Disability” does not need to be such a scary, unsexy, stigmatizing word. We are the ones that give words their power, after all.

If we use it, and use it well, use it often, use it in good ways, in describing ourselves, our children – all those who have a way of using their minds, senses, bodies (- and in my opinion, feelings) in a way that currently signals “impairment” – then we change the power that lies in the word. We transform it. And we have that power, you know. We can transform words.

Disability” does not need to be a dirty word. It does not need to be something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. Rather, it holds the potential to a power to see and experience the world in a completely different way.

Read more about disability and the disability rights movement!

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The Right to Live in the World: Dr. Brown's List of Books for Disability Advocacy
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Rae Reviews: Rare is Everywhere, by Deborah Katz
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  1. What a fantastic blog! Thank you. So many people want to soften the blow or beat around the bush when talking about the (shhhhhh) D word. I’m so thrilled that “disabled” has been reclaimed. After my TBI, some people kept rewording how I talked about my own experiences, neutralizing my own descriptions right in front of me. Maybe they thought they were helping me? I think probably they were helping themselves to not have to face my struggles head on. Lucky to be them, to be able to rename my impairments to make themselves feel more relaxed. Let’s cut right to the point!

  2. Love this, Meriah. I’ve struggled with the words as used interchangeably. I don’t love either but better understanding their origins is a huge help (why have I never looked them up before???). I’m also bothered by the term “exceptional children.” Both my kids are exceptional. They’re mine, so I think they rock more than any other kid on the planet.

    Lots of food for thought. Thanks for raising the issue so more people will think about it.

  3. I think the biggest factor in “society not liking the word disabilty” is from the social security insurance DISABILITY payment system. This is a totally corrupt system that pays life long (and continuing smokers) for lung problems, pays if you are “obese” and can’t work…. Because of sharing the same word – the adjective has become a very mistrusted.

    1. Before someone jumps all over me – I am very aware that there are people that are truly unable to work and need the SSI but everyone has to admit that the system is horribly corrupt and misused.

  4. This post really made me think about how I want to refer to my daughter who was multiply (disabled??) by brain cancer. I had never really thought about there being a difference between the terms disabled and special needs. I like the term differently-abled, yet it isn’t catching on in society. Even I forget to use it. I wonder how others with disabilities and special needs feel. A very though provoking post!

    1. Jennifer Drennan says:

      Hi Sylvia! Just chiming in here from the mother of a cancer survivor as well. Shortest story possible, my daughter was BORN with stage 4 Neuroblastoma. Ya, evidently congenital cancer IS a thing. Who knew? Anyway, 8 rounds of chemotherapy the first year of her life (the first round at the tender age of 3 days old) and she has been cancer-free for 12 years! She is 13 years old. Unfortunately, tons of collateral damage from the chemo and tumors. The tumors grew out of her spinal column in utero, so she has a spinal cord injury and is paralyzed from the knees down and has a neurogenic bowel and bladder. She has hearing loss, is globally developmentally delayed and has autism diagnosis to boot. I give all of this context to circle back to the original discussion.

    2. Jennifer Drennan says:

      Continuing comment: Circling back to the discussion. There is no One-Size-Fits-All label, category, name, whatever. I LOVED this article and think she made some excellent points. I refer to my daughter is disabled and special needs. She IS disabled. She has a SCI. She DOES have special needs – educationally, medically, emotionally, cognitively, really over all spectrums. But that’s just ME and our family and what works for US. I don’t get heartburn over the terms. But I totally understand the stigmas and the discomfort on certain triggering terms and labels. Totally get it. I think just having conversations like this, even just within the special needs/disability/neurodivergent/neurodiverse/differently-abled community is a great start to understanding other people’s perspectives. No one is right or wrong. We are ALL figuring it out.

  5. It seems, as I hear these words, that the “special needs” label gets brought out much more often for people with intellectual disabilities. We’re uncomfortable with the idea of intellectual disability, and very uncomfortable with the words around it.

    I think there is also a gap in our language when it comes to children. My son is 9 months old, and it doesn’t feel right in my mouth to say he is disabled. Shoot, he’s 9 months old, he doesn’t have very many abilities yet! I’ll say he has Down syndrome, I’ll say he has developmental delays–but while I know he will have a disability, I don’t feel like I know what that looks like enough, yet, to name it as such.

    1. But see, that’s where reclaiming the word, “disability” is so important. Because when it’s commonly understand to be an umbrella word that covers everyone who has a way of thinking, speaking, feeling, walking, talking, hearing, seeing (- and so forth) that is different than the mainstream does, then it won’t seem so weird. And it won’t seem like you need to be adult to have a disability, or that “disability” is some adult word.

      You don’t need to know the specifics of your son’s cognitive disability – and that’s good because Ds is so poorly understood, overall, that you might be waiting a lifetime to understand the specifics of it! – to know that he has a disability. Not “will have”; he actually does have one. And that’s not a bad thing at all. Because like I said, “disability” is simply an umbrella word to indicate that your son has a way of thinking/being that is not mainstream.

    1. I was getting into that when I was talking about us disabled reclaiming the word and so forth. I guess I wasn’t very clear.

      and yeah, that’s why I label myself “disabled” as well 🙂

      1. Oh, my mistake. I didn’t read very thoroughly and missed that part. I’m not very sold on ‘special needs’ either – I don’t like the ‘special’ part of it. But it’s definitely difficult to think of something to replace it with.

        1. I feel the same – not just because of “special” but because it’s supposed to be used in an educational setting and now people are using it interchangeably with ‘disability’

  6. Holy moly! I literally just plopped myself down in the middle of your phenomenal website(!) & am thinking to myself, HOW THE HECK HAVE I NOT FOUND THIS LADY BEFORE?! Like, seriously, you GET IT. And I ❤️anybody who actually, truly, really, awesomely GETS IT!! Woot! (Can ya tell I’m just a bit excited?) ???

    So it’s 4 years since you wrote this post, & I’ve not read yet another word from your blog, but I am thrilled to have stumbled across your words & timely message. I just had to stop & say thank you (before I forget, haha! ?). So this is me, “disabled” since I was born, with more autoimmune stuffs than I can keep up with, & also recently diagnosed w/lymphoma cancer now at 34 (seriously, like, as of last week–so still super clueless abt that diagnosis), but here it is: THANK YOU! ??

    Because, as you know, there is ALWAYS something to learn about our bodies, and its amazing ability to function, thrive, fight disease, or overcome obstacles in creative ways; sometimes ways in which even our dr’s/scientists/whomever we go to with our needs, will never discover.

    The ability to be happy in the midst of pain or discomfort (or misunderstanding or symptoms or whatever…!) is a lifelong journey. Just having this new knowledge that you & many of the others who commented here, are able to GET THAT, has me giddy with joy tonight, as I wait for pain medicines to kick in(!).

    Again…thanks so much for such a beautifully written & shared piece. I am blessed by it & will be sharing it with others who are in similarly “disabled” boats! ???‍♀️

    Headed now to read the rest of your blog (or get a good start!)…many many blessings & happiness for you & yours.

  7. Dear Meriah, what do you think about the term additional needs?

    1. Hi Kenan,
      I don’t think it’s very specific… I mean, it’s not clear to me what it means.


  8. Ariel Zimmerlein says:

    Interesting article. Alas I still disagree with using the term disability. I myself like using the word condition in its place to describe myself. I occasionally use special needs. I don’t like the word disability simply for the root of it. The dis- part is latin meaning “apart from with a negative connotation”, you see it in words like disease, dislike, disown. The word is negative in tone and meaning regardless of social origin. To me dis-abled always translated as I’m not able. I like the word condition as it means “the state of something, especially with regard to its appearance, quality, or working order”. I like the word condition better because it is just the state of being, no negative connotation, just simply stating that yes I’m different than the norm and this is my condition, my way of being for living in this world.. it’s just a matter of fact, kind of it is what it is. Because to me my condition is apart of me not some negative meaning that sets me apart from others.

  9. Please look up the legal definition of Special Needs. Special Needs does NOT, if properly used, refer to mental capacity or educational needs. My son and his friends who have some disabilities. They all were incensed by the assumption that they are incapacitated just because they have to do some things differently than you. They are all 4.0 honor students and trust me, they are far from incapacitated.

  10. I have a grandson who was diagnosed with a mild Hemi-plegic Cerebral Palsy n I had a lady say that her kids have to see specialists n so her kids seeing specialists n my grandsons disability mean the same thing with which I totally disagree.

  11. How about alternative needs?

  12. Sharing this study article:

    Gernsbacher, M. A., Raimond, A. R., Balinghasay, M. T., & Boston, J. S. (2016). “Special needs” is an ineffective euphemism. Cognitive research: principles and implications, 1(1), 29. doi:10.1186/s41235-016-0025-4

  13. Hey… Meriah.

    First, I would like to thank you for the wonderful article about different special needs disabilities in children.

    I have 7-year kids, who need special needs, I have joined him,
    They are also the same category who are in Learning & Therapy Center

  14. Hello, I’ve been reading your article and you know I am deaf so I can understand what you feel about heard special needs and disabilities. Like me, I DO NOT like being label as a disability or muted or hearing implant or special needs, just prefer deaf or deafness.

    “Deafness or Deaf didn’t define as disability, muted or hearing implant either. Actually, deafness or deaf is a part of disabilities but we BELIEVE that WE’RE DEAF, not special needs, or DA either.”

  15. Hello, I’ve been reading your article and you know I am deaf so I can understand what you feel about heard special needs and disabilities. Like me, I DO NOT like being label as a disability.

    “Deafness or Deaf didn’t define as disability, muted or hearing implant either. Actually, deafness or deaf is a part of disabilities but we BELIEVE that WE’RE DEAF, not special needs, or DA either.”

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