OFF THE SPECTRUM: Special needs vs disability

By Y Smith

Happy New Year! I hope this year brings more peace, prosperity and awareness for you all.

Let’s start on the path of awareness. If you’re a reader of this column, you know that it focuses particularly on the special education community. Therefore, this entry will shed light on what this community entails.

So, what precisely are special needs and are they the same as being disabled? The answer to that question is, by far, not a simple “yes” or “no” one. I’ve heard many myths and misconceptions about what special needs are about. Understandably so, if you’re not directly affected or involved in this community, the misconceptions and questions may be sincere, although they may come across as offensive to some. I have come to realise that many people actually want to know more about this topic. Spreading awareness not only increases knowledge but eliminates the stigma placed special needs.

When pondering on what topic I should write about to start the new year off with, I picked the brains of a few friends by asking them what their idea of special needs is. One of the conversations that stood out to me, and ultimately inspired me to write this article, was when a friend asked the question, “Are special needs contagious?” My initial reaction was a sarcastic, “Yes, so be careful not to bump into someone with autism.” Obviously, it was a joke and I made that very clear as we continued the conversation.

I left that conversation thinking deeply about how many people actually, naïvely, think this way. The conversation sparked the need for me to get a general idea of questions others may have about this community.

However, let’s revisit the initial question posed in this article: Are special needs and disability the same thing?

By definition, a disability is any condition that substantially restricts a person’s everyday mobility and activities, according to the World Health Organisation. Essentially, disability is an umbrella term that covers any physical, sensory or neurological (cognitive) impairments. Special needs, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, are any learning, emotional, behavioural or physical delays that cause an individual to require additional or specialised services in an education or recreational setting.


In many places, efforts are being made to employ more people with disabilities and special needs.

Subsequently, special needs fall under the umbrella of disability. Hence, the use of the words “disabled” and “special needs” may be used interchangeably. Although, keep in mind that in some cases disabilities are protected and covered by laws whereas many special needs conditions are not.

Now let’s answer a few other questions that were asked during my informal survey.

Q: Are special needs hereditary?

A: According to kidshealth.org, experts have noticed that learning disabilities are greatly influenced by genetics. There are other conditions, like Down syndrome, that are caused by a chromosomal condition. Many other studies have been and are being conducted to investigate how much genetics play a part in other developmental delays. Other factors that may cause a child to be born with a special need include injury or disease such as a severe fever or meningitis.

Q: Can people with special needs get jobs?

A: Certainly! Many individuals with special needs make up the job field. In fact, there are laws in place, and more being passed, where large companies are required to have at least one percent of their staff be special needs employees. Many of these individuals have job coaches or assistants who go to work with them.

Q: Can special needs be cured?

A: This question has been a controversial one over the last few decades. Many people do believe that there is a cure out there for certain developmental delays. However, answering from a medical point of view, disabilities have no cure. Nevertheless, early intervention can lessen their effects. People with special needs can learn ways to cope with their disabilities. Getting early help increases the chance of success in school and later in life.

They main takeaway from all of this is that these conditions exist. Whether curable or not, it is our duty as a society to make ourselves aware of what individuals with special needs face. Continue to educate yourself on this topic. It’s never too late to become more aware!

• For workshop inquiries or training sessions, feel free to contact us at 552-5909, e-mail: tutoringtherapy@gmail.com, or on Facebook:Therapy Learning Centre. Y Smith is an academic coordinator and life skills instructor.


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