10 Positive Words For “Special Needs”

The term “special needs” is often used to describe folks who are born with physical and mental disabilities. However, this is not a politically correct term – even being deemed offensive. Therefore, we must consider the proper alternatives, as no one should be subjected to being called something considerably rude.

What Should I Say Instead Of “Special Needs”?

We must always remember that our words have power and can affect people negatively. In terms of a disabled person, here are the appropriate terms we can use:

  • Disabled
  • Blind or Visually Impaired
  • Deaf or Hard-of-hearing
  • Speech or Communication Disability
  • Learning or Cognitive Disability
  • Psychiatric or Mental Health Disability
  • Physically Disabled
  • Developmentally Disabled
  • Emotionally Disabled
  • A Little Person
Positive Words For Special Needs

The preferred term is “disabled”. This is because “disabled” encapsulates all folks who fall under the umbrella of having a disability – regardless of whether it is mental or physical. This is considered a proud identifier, part of who these individuals are. “Disabled” should always be the term we use.


To be “disabled” is considerably common. Around 15-20% of all humans are born with a disability. This is not something to be ashamed of and only enhances our world and our learning opportunities. Therefore, using the term “disabled” is considered proper and respectful.

When we say someone is “disabled” we are merely acknowledging an aspect of who they are.

We should not consider someone’s needs to be “special” because they differ from our own. A disabled person has the inherent right to have their needs met, just the same as any other person.

Here are some ways we can use this term:

  • He is disabled and does require the constant use of a wheelchair.
  • She may be disabled, but she lives an amazing and exciting life!
  • You would never know that they were disabled and this is why it’s important to remain conscience and educate ourselves.

Blind Or Visually Impaired

We will use the terms “blind” or “visually impaired” when we’re describing someone who suffers from any form of vision loss. This can be someone who is “blind”, with absolutely no vision. Or it can describe someone who is “visually impaired” with partial loss of sight.

When we say someone is “blind”, we are acknowledging their state of being unable to see as a result of disease, genetic conditions, or injury.

When we say “visually impaired” we are discussing someone who has faced a decrease in their ability to see to a degree that is no longer fixable by usual means such as glasses or surgery.

Some ways in which we can use these terms are:

  • He was in a terrible accident and as a result, he became visually impaired.
  • She was unfortunately born blind, never possessing the ability to see.
  • Despite being blind, he was able to get himself wherever he needed to go with little to no issues!

Deaf Or Hard-Of-Hearing

We will use the terms “deaf” or “hard-of-hearing” when we are describing someone who suffers a form of hearing impairment. This is someone who has the inability to hear sounds adequately. This can be a permanent state or a fluctuating state of impairment.

When we say that someone is “deaf” we are acknowledging that they lack the ability to speak. This can sometimes affect their speech as well.

When we say that someone is “hard-of-hearing”, we are referring to someone who has suffered a mild to a severe loss of hearing.

To further clarify, here are a few examples:

  • She was born without the ability to hear, making her legally deaf.
  • He suffered an injury while fighting overseas, resulting in him becoming hard-of-hearing.
  • He may be deaf, but his ability to communicate and read lips is flawless.

Speech Or Communication Disability

We will use the terms “speech” or “communication disability” when we are describing someone who has a speech impairment. This refers to someone who has an impaired ability to produce adequate speech sounds. This impairment can also range from mild to severe.

Both “speech” and “communication disabilities” refer to issues with communication and related areas like oral motor function abilities.

These disabilities can range from simplistic sound substitutions to the complete inability to understand or use language. This can also include folks who cannot use oral-motor mechanisms in order to functionally talk or eat.

Here are a few ways we can properly utilize these terms:

  • She suffers from a speech disability, so she often uses ASL to convey her needs and thoughts.
  • He suffers from a severe communication disorder that also affects his ability to eat properly.
  • While they both have speech disabilities, they work incredibly hard to still functionally train their oral-motor skills!

Learning or Cognitive Disability

We use the terms “learning” or “cognitive disability” when we are describing someone who has a known intellectual disability. These are folks who have certain limitations in their mental functioning and associated skills. As with other disabilities, intellectual disabilities fall in a range from mild to severe.

When we say someone has a “learning disability” we are acknowledging their condition which causes difficulties in acquiring knowledge and skills to the level of those at a similar age.

When we say someone has a “cognitive disability” we are describing someone’s limitations in their mental functioning as well as potential social skills, communication or self-help.

To understand how to properly use these terms, here are a few examples:

  • He may have a cognitive disability, but he has the biggest and kindest heart you could ever know.
  • She was born with a cognitive disability that also affects her speech.
  • He has a mild learning disability, but he’s still doing amazing in school.

Psychiatric or Mental Health Disability

When we say that someone has a “psychiatric” or “mental health disability” we are discussing someone with a mental impairment, that causes difficulty or limitations in their day-to-day activities. These disabilities can range from mild to severe in how they affect an individual.

There are many disorders and illnesses that are categorized as falling under the umbrella term of “psychiatric or mental health disabilities”. Some of these include; anxiety, depression, autism, bipolar disorder, ADHD and more.

Here are a few examples using these terms for us to go over:

  • She suffers from severe anxiety, a known mental health disorder.
  • Despite having a psychiatric disability, she still lives a rich and fulfilling life.
  • He was recently diagnosed with a mental health disability.

Physically Disabled

When we say that someone is “physically disabled”, we are acknowledging that they have a physical condition that affects their mobility, physical capacity, dexterity or stamina. A person may be born with a physical disability or they may acquire it as a result of an accident or illness.

Much like other disabilities, being “physically disabled” can affect people in different ways and levels of severity. Some known physical disabilities are cerebral palsy, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, amputations, and spinal cord injuries.

To showcase how we correctly use these terms, here are some examples:

  • He was born with cerebral palsy, which classifies him as being physically disabled.
  • Despite being physically disabled; he was able to get himself wherever he needed to go.
  • As a result of her accident, she had become an amputee and therefore, physically disabled.

Developmentally Disabled

When we say that someone is “developmentally disabled”, we are choosing to knowledge that they have a developmental disorder that can affect them physically, mentally, socially, or in all forms. This can affect areas like language, behaviour, mobility, learning and speech.

These are generally classified as disabilities that someone is born with, and affect their trajectory in terms of physical or intellectual development.

To further clarify, here are a few examples of how to use this term:

  • He was born with down syndrome, which does classify him as being developmentally disabled.
  • Regardless of being developmentally disabled, he went on to have a successful career as an actor.
  • She has a developmental disability, but she’s an incredibly quick learner.

Emotionally Disabled

When we say that someone is “emotionally disabled”, we are acknowledging that they suffer from a condition that affects their ability to effectively recognize, regulate or express fundamental emotions. Often, these disabilities adversely affect a person’s ability to learn, which cannot be explained by health, sensory or intellectual factors.

Unfortunately, in some cases, folks with “emotional disabilities” have great difficulty interacting with others, as they do not share the same interests or enjoyments.

Some ways in which we can properly use this term are:

  • He’s considered emotionally disabled and unfortunately, has a difficult time interacting with his peers.
  • While she may be emotionally disabled, she’s a total sweetheart and rather comical!
  • Being emotionally disabled does NOT make you any less of a person.

A Little Person

The last appropriate alternative we will look at is “a little person”. We should use this term when we wish to acknowledge that someone was born with dwarfism. Despite there being other commonly used terms, this is the one that folks with dwarfism prefer and appreciate the use of.

The preferred term will vary throughout the community and by the individual, however, “a little person” is regarded as being an acceptable and politically correct term.

Here are our last few examples for this article:

  • She was born with dwarfism and prefers to be referred to as a little person, not a dwarf.
  • It’s highly rude to use the term “midget”, please consider using “a little person”, from now on.
  • He may be a little person, but his heart is bigger than anyone I’ve ever known.

Is It Politically Correct To Say “Special Needs”?

In short, no, it is incredibly incorrect to use the term “special needs”. “Disabled” is considered the most appropriate and politically correct term that one can choose to use. It’s important to remember that someone’s needs should not be considered “special”.

Their needs are no different than anyone else’s. They are merely their individual, human needs, that they have the right to have met. When we refer to someone as “special” we are making them stand apart from the rest of the crowd.

Folks with disabilities, much of the time, want to feel as though they fit in and are accepted amongst their communities, schools, etc. This is why it’s important to use respectful terms, even asking an individual how they prefer to be acknowledged.

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