What does the term "special needs" mean?

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The term special needs refers to individuals who require assistance for an array of disabilities or developmental delays in behavioral, cognitive, emotional, physical, scholastic, or social skills. These disabilities can affect many aspects of people's lives, such as how they behavior in certain situations, develop physically and mentally, interact with others, learn, and take care of themselves. Individuals with special needs typically require some type of specialized care, including medication, therapy, social skills instruction, assisted living, or special education. Many can manage their care on their own, but some require assistance with certain aspects of their lives.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, 19 percent of the U.S. population had a disability that impacted daily living. Many governmental and nongovernmental organizations exist to provide services and programs for those with disabilities. The United States has several laws in place to protect the rights of those with special needs.

Types of Special Needs

Special needs can be classified as physical or mental disabilities. People with special needs can have more than one disability. For instance, a blind person can also have bipolar disorder.

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities affect a person physically or medically. They can affect a person's ability to move or function normally. The following are examples of physical disabilities:

  • Blindness, or visual impairment: This affects a person's ability to see.
  • Chronic illnesses: These can affect an individual's ability to perform everyday activities. Examples include allergies, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, and epilepsy.
  • Congenital disorders: These occur at birth. Examples include deformities of limbs, missing limbs, cleft lip, clubfoot, and spine disorders.
  • Deafness, or hearing impairment: This affects a person's ability to hear.
  • Orthopedic, or movement impediments: These affect a person's ability to move. They can be caused by congenital anomalies, disease or illness, accidents, or other conditions such as cerebral palsy.
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI): This is an injury to the brain usually caused by external forces, such as a severe blow to the head. This physical condition can impair not only motor abilities but also cognitive functions such as the ability to think, speak, remember, and solve problems. TBI can also affect psychosocial behaviors.
Mental Disabilities

Mental disabilities affect behavior, cognitive skills, emotions, learning, and social interactions. The following are examples of mental disabilities:

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): This affects verbal and nonverbal communication skills and social interaction.
  • Bipolar disorder: This causes an individual to suffer from lows and highs such as periods of depression followed by periods of mania.
  • Depression: This causes a person severe sadness and feelings of hopelessness usually affecting activities once enjoyed.
  • Dementia, including Alzheimer's disease: This affects the aging population and usually alters mental function and behavior.
  • Down syndrome: This genetic condition causes individuals to have a lower than normal intelligence, which can result in other mental and physical disabilities.
  • Learning disorders: These affect a person's ability to think, speak, and learn and can affect social skills. Examples include dysgraphia (writing difficulties), dyslexia (reading difficulties), and dyscalculia (arithmetic difficulties).
  • Manias: These conditions affect a person's behavior in extreme ways and can cause impulsive behaviors. Examples include pyromania, or the impulse to start fires.
  • Phobias: People with phobias attach unnatural fear to certain objects or situations. People who have arachnophobia are afraid of spiders.
  • Schizophrenia: This affects people's thought processes and ability to function normally. They may experience delusions or hallucinations, situations that they believe are true but are not real, and exhibit strange behavior.
Americans with Disabilities Act

The U.S. government in 1990 signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to protect those with special needs against discrimination in public and private spaces such as work, school, transportation, and more. The law is divided into five parts. The first part deals with employment and states that employers must provide the same opportunities and benefits to individuals with special needs as those without disabilities. The law also says that employers must provide accommodations to disabled individuals, as long as the accommodations do not impose a financial hardship to the employer.

The next section targets state and local government services. It maintains that both types of government services and activities must be accessible for those with special needs. The third part deals with public and private places. These must ensure that commercial facilities can be accessed by those with disabilities. This includes communicating with people who have vision, hearing, and speech disabilities.

The fourth section is for telephone and Internet companies. They must provide services such as telecommunications relay services and closed captioning to those with hearing, speech, and visual disabilities. The last part deals with topics not already covered by the ADA such as state immunity, retaliation, attorneys' fees, relationship to other laws, and more.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

In the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects the educational rights of students with disabilities. It ensures students receive special education , the instruction and support provided to students with disabilities. IDEA mandates that all U.S. public schools provide special education services with specific guidelines to ensure students with special needs receive an education on par with that of their peers.

Until 1975, many children with special needs did not have access to an education. Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) to ensure children with disabilities received a free public education equal to that of their peers. Schools received federal funding to evaluate students and develop learning programs for them. Under EHA, parents also received support services from schools. Over the years, more services were added to ensure students received transition care after school ended. The act's name was later changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.


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