What to Say Instead of "Special Needs"

Why the Term "Special Needs" Is Confusing and Offensive

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The term "special needs" has come under increasing scrutiny over the years, and for good reason. It's a vague, euphemistic phrase that can be offensive to many people. Nevertheless, it is still said within educational and community settings throughout the United States, and is often used interchangeably with diagnostic terms or words like "disabled." Incidentally, the term "special needs" has no legal meaning.

We've turned to the experts to learn about the origins of the term "special needs," understand more about why the term is problematic, and what to say instead.

Origins of the Term "Special Needs"

While the exact origins of "special needs" are difficult to trace, it's important to note that the phrase does not appear in several key legal documents in U.S. history. It is noticeably absent from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (IDEA) of 1965, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and 2014.

"Never once [in these acts] are children with disabilities or adults with disabilities referred to as children with special needs or adults with special needs," emphasizes Morton Ann Gersbacher, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. "Rather, individuals with disabilities are always referred to in U.S. law as individuals with disabilities."

We do know that the term "special needs" has become a catch-all phrase for all forms of disability and a variety of diagnoses. Currently, "special needs" can refer to anything from "difficulty with reading at grade level" to "unable to complete the most basic tasks of daily living." We also know that the phrase has become a euphemism that is vague and confusing—especially when it aims to encapsulate a wide variety of conditions and diagnoses.

Why the Term "Special Needs" Is Confusing

The term "special needs" is extremely general. As it's used today, it refers to any behavioral, physical, emotional, or learning difficulties that require specialized accommodations of any sort at school, work, or in the community.

While the list of possible diagnoses included under the label "special needs" is enormous, some of the most common relate to academic settings and can include:

  • Autism
  • Learning disabilities (dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc.)
  • Tourette's syndrome
  • Disorders that incorporate intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome
  • Disorders that make physical activity challenging, including cerebral palsy, blindness, or deafness,
  • Speech and language disorders ranging from apraxia of speech to stuttering
  • Emotional and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, oppositional-defiant disorder, and more
  • Physical differences such as amputated limbs or dwarfism

Other lesser known disorders, such as non-verbal learning disorder, also fall under the term special needs.

Why "Special Needs" Can Be Offensive

The term "special needs" is a euphemism for the better-known terms like "disabled." Euphemisms, by definition, are terms used to soften the meaning of other phrases. We don't use the toilet; we euphemistically "go to the restroom." We don't die; we "pass away."

It was once thought that words like "disability" or "impairment" might require a euphemism like "special needs." The thinking was that parents might feel more comfortable saying "my child has special needs" rather than "my child is disabled."

The term "special needs," however, has become stigmatized in the same way as the term "handicapped." A 2016 study found that people think of the term "special needs" as more negative than the word "disabled."

The presence of a disability is not and should not be seen as shameful. The use of a euphemism in place of a diagnosis or even in place of the term "disability" creates the sense that there is something negative or even embarrassing to hide. The same sense of shame can be communicated by other terms such as "differently abled" or "challenged."

What to Say Instead of "Special Needs"

While the phrase "special needs" has no legal meaning, the word "disability" does. "Disabled" is a straightforward word with a clear-cut meaning, which is why many people prefer it to the phrase "special needs." As the Americans With Disabilities Act tells us, "An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment."

Another option is to describe a person's disabilities by naming their particular diagnosis. In some cases, it's helpful to use "person-first" language ("a person with ADHD") as opposed to describing the person in terms of their disability ("an anxious person"). It's important to note that this is not always the best choice; for example, some people with autism diagnoses prefer the term "autistic person."

Because there are differences of opinion about the "best" terms to use, an ideal option is to simply ask. This isn't always possible; when it's not, it's preferable to use the term "disabled." Always avoid terms that are clearly euphemisms for disability, such as "special" and "exceptional."

Emily Ladau, author of "Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally," explains, "I believe deeply that language preferences are a personal choice, and everyone should have a right to choose identifying terms that feel best for them. I try to remind people that language isn't one-size-fits-all, especially since there are more than a billion disabled people in the world."

Ladau adds that the term "disability" is not a bad word; it's a state of being. In some cases, a disability can actually connote identity, history, and culture. Avoiding the term can come across as more patronizing than respectful.

A Word From Verywell

It can be hard to choose the right language for every situation, and the term "special needs" is not going to disappear overnight. In fact, you may find it impossible to avoid the term in many situations, especially if you are disabled or have a loved one with a disability.

That said, it's best to avoid euphemisms whenever possible. Instead of "my child with special needs," consider substituting "my child," or "my child with," or even just your child's name. When speaking with others, the term "disabled" is widely preferred, but it never hurts to ask about someone's personal preference when it comes to language.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gernsbacher MA, Raimond AR, Balinghasay MT, Boston JS. "Special needs" is an ineffective euphemism. Cogn Res Princ Implic. 2016;1(1):29. doi: 10.1186/s41235-016-0025-4. Epub 2016 Dec 19. PMID: 28133625; PMCID: PMC5256467.

  2. Gernsbacher MA, Raimond AR, Balinghasay MT, Boston JS. "Special needs" is an ineffective euphemism. Cogn Res Princ Implic. 2016;1(1):29. doi: 10.1186/s41235-016-0025-4. Epub 2016 Dec 19. PMID: 28133625; PMCID: PMC5256467.

  3. National Center on Disability and Journalism. Disability Language Style Guide.

  4. Gernsbacher MA, Raimond AR, Balinghasay MT, Boston JS. "Special needs" is an ineffective euphemism. Cogn Res Princ Implic. 2016;1(1):29. doi: 10.1186/s41235-016-0025-4. Epub 2016 Dec 19. PMID: 28133625; PMCID: PMC5256467.

  5. U.S. Department of Justice. A Guide to Disability Rights Laws.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.