Do I Say, “Special Needs” or “Disability”?

This is a question that gets asked often. 

These terms have felt for years to be interchangeable, but are they?  The answer to that is, no

Referring to someone as “special needs, retarded, or slow” is no longer politically correct. The proper terminology to describe a person with an intellectual disability is not just one word or a single phrase. Instead, what is current is using person-first language. For example, a person with down syndrome would be referred to as a person with down syndrome. The idea behind the use of person-first language is to help others see beyond a person’s differences. Instead of an identity-first language, person-first language promotes the humanity of a person before their differences.

 However, people should be mindful that some people do take pride and identity with their disability. For example, certain people in the deaf and autistic communities may prefer an identity-first approach. So they like to be known as a “deaf person” or an “autistic person”, not “a person with deafness” or “a person with autism”. Because a person’s preference is not known from the start, it is important to ask a person how they would like to be referred to as.  Please note that making reference to a person’s difference should only be done if absolutely necessary

Because of the confusion surrounding the communication of disability, the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University have devoted themselves to staying current on the proper terminology. Check out their style guide here.

So is that really it to understanding how to communicate about intellectual disabilities? 

Well, not really. Here are a few do’s and don’ts when trying to communicate about people with intellectual disabilities.

DON’T: refer to a person as “special needs”

The term “special needs” is often used as a degrading adjective to describe a person. A person with a disability deserves to be treated as a human with the same respect shown to all. People with disabilities have the same needs and requirements as people without disabilities. Each person needs to be able to survive, feel joy, and connect with others in their communities. Just because someone may need to use a ramp instead of a stairway should not remove their humanity in the minds and eyes of others. Disability rights activist, Emily Ladau says it best, “my needs are not “special” just because they’re not met in ways identical to the needs of non-disabled people.”

DO: Understand the History of the Terminology

“Special needs” was a term adopted by the educational system because of the legislation system. It was never supposed to be used as a term referring to disability. Before the 1960s, if a child had “special needs”, families had to privately fund their child’s education. This changed when a group of parents formed an advocacy group to bring the educational needs of children with disabilities into the spotlight. Because of these parent’s advocacy, President John F. Kennedy created the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation (now considered the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services) to help meet the needs of these advocates. This board then pushed President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. This act provided funding for primary education and public access for children with disabilities. All of this was looking like progress in the American education system for children with disabilities. 

Unfortunately, the act’s implementation fell short in the 1970s when a relatively small number of children with disabilities were being educated by the public school system. It wasn’t until 1975 when two federal laws would change this: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) & the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The EHA established the right to public education for all children regardless of disability. IDEA then required schools to provide an individualized, or “special” education for children with qualifying disabilities. 

“Special needs” became a term that evolved, but was never mandated. It is unclear on the exact date when “special needs” became a euphemism for intellectual disability. Historical research can trace the origin to the 1980s. Guralnick (1994) reported that there was a noticeable change in the language on a questionnaire for parents regarding their children: the phrase “handicapped children” became “children with special needs”. The term “special needs” was only mentioned a couple of times in the original legislation. The term “special needs” was never developed to be used with the intention to be used for medical and legal documentation, rather it was used to refer to the individual education that someone with a disability would access. 

DO: Ask People Their Preferences

People are as variable as snowflakes. Some people feel comfortable being open about their disabilities while others do not. When in doubt, the best course of action is to avoid the topic altogether; unless it is absolutely necessary to describe a situation pertaining to the person. This allows a person to have control over how they refer to themselves. 

Disabilities are merely characteristics that make each person different. With one weakness, there is always a strength. It is important to remember that each person, regardless of their perceived ability, is human. Each person is living life and going through the same human experience. Disability of any kind should not change the respect that someone receives, as we are all human and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of ability. 



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.

Guralnick MJ. Mothers’ perceptions of the benefits and drawbacks of early childhood mainstreaming. Journal of Early Intervention. 1994;18:168–183

Christine Campbell

Christine is HappyNeuron Pro’s Marketing Specialist. People with intellectual disabilities have a special place in her heart. Growing up with a sibling with an autism diagnosis and intellectual disability influenced the way she views life. She is passionate about educating people about health and sharing cognitive tips.

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