Narrated version of this blog post:


It’s no secret that I’m very fact-based and have written about terminology numerous times on this blog. What I am about to write is no different.

This post could, admittingly, have been shared as part of my newly introduced “quick overview” blog posts. However, I do think this blog post deserves more attention. It’s simply too often people are not even aware of the difference between these 2 terms and the discrimination that either usage could cause.

It’s important to note that I choose to write this post because the terms are often used interchangeably, without any attention to the actual different meanings. It’s further often the case that people discriminate and verbally attack people for using one of the two terms, even when the usage is correct. It’s something I’ve recently experienced as well.

The saddest part is that the differences between the two terms are actually really clear, which are primarily based on the usage on either educational or medical level, as well as disabilities having factually a far more negative tone, due to the actual meaning of the term. However, sadly, there’s often a preference for the term “disability” which unnecessarily hurts, discriminates, and even stigmatizes people with special needs. To me, it’s important for this to end as there’s especially unjust negativity over the term “special needs”. Although, admittingly, there’s also unjust positivity in regard to the term “disabilities”.

So, let’s get to it.

What Are Special Needs?

Special needs is a term used to describe a range of physical, mental, and emotional conditions that require extra support and attention. Special needs can affect people in different ways and to varying degrees, so the level of support required varies from person to person.

Examples of special needs include, but are not limited to:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Sensory processing disorders
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Physical disabilities
  • Emotional and behavioral disorders

Individuals with special needs have unique challenges that may require additional support, accommodations, and modifications to their environment or daily routines. This can include assistive technology, specialized education programs, and accessibility modifications to buildings and public spaces.

What Are Disabilities?

Disabilities refer to physical or mental conditions that limit a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks. Disabilities can be acquired through injury, illness, or genetic conditions. They can be permanent or temporary and can affect people in different ways.

Examples of disabilities include:

  • Blindness or visual impairments
  • Deafness or hearing impairments
  • Physical disabilities that limit mobility
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Chronic health conditions

Disabilities can impact a person’s mobility, communication, cognition, and sensory perception. They may require additional resources and accommodations to navigate their daily lives, such as wheelchair ramps, sign language interpreters, or modified work environments.

Key Differences Between Special Needs and Disabilities

The primary difference between special needs and disabilities is that “special needs” is a broader term that encompasses a range of conditions, while “disabilities” refer specifically to limitations in physical or mental functioning. Special needs may or may not result in a disability, depending on the severity of the condition.

Another difference between special needs and disabilities is the level of support required. Individuals with special needs may require additional resources and accommodations to navigate their daily lives, but they may not necessarily have a disability that limits their abilities. On the other hand, individuals with disabilities typically require more extensive support and accommodations to perform everyday tasks.

Lastly, special needs are often used in an educational context, while disabilities are used in a medical context. This is because special needs often require specialized education programs and accommodations, while disabilities may require medical treatment and support services.

Implications of These Differences

Understanding the differences between special needs and disabilities is important for providing appropriate support and resources to those who need them. By recognizing and accommodating individual differences, we can create a more inclusive and supportive world for everyone.

It is also essential to avoid using these terms interchangeably or inappropriately. For example, using the term “special needs” to refer to a person with a physical disability can be misleading and diminish the severity of their condition. On the other hand, using the term “disabilities” to refer to a person with special needs can equally be misleading and increase the believed severity of the person’s needs and condition. Both can lead to unjust discrimination and even hatred.


In conclusion, special needs and disabilities are two terms that have different meanings. Special needs refer to a range of conditions that require additional support and attention, while disabilities refer specifically to limitations in physical or mental functioning. By understanding these differences, we can provide appropriate support and resources to those who need them and create a more inclusive world for everyone.