“disability” vs. “special needs” debate
is complex. During the past fifty years, the term “special needs” became popular in special education and the disability service systems as a way to describe the accommodations students and individuals with disabilities need to learn and live fully. It also came into use in response to words that were perceived as discriminatory (such as retarded, for example).
However, many individuals — both with and without disabilities — argue that
the needs of people with disabilities are not special
and that education, equal rights, and employment are needs that all human beings share.
One must qualify as a person with a disability, not a person with special needs, under federal education and civil rights laws to obtain the services and supports provided through special education and Medicaid-funded community services. Today, many activists also believe that using the word “disability” helps change its negative association by
claiming it as a positive part of a person’s identity.