What’s the Definition of “Special Needs?”

This past Tuesday, we began to consider the question of whether we should abandon use of the term “Special Needs Ministry.” The principal argument put forth is that most kids with disabilities that produce impediments to church participation and spiritual growth would not view themselves (or be viewed by their parents) as having “special needs.” Today, we’ll raise another issue…When we use the term “special needs” to refer to a population of underserved children, who exactly are we referring to?

Thanks to the wonders of Google, one discovers quickly that there is no uniform definition of the term “special needs” under Federal law. In fact, the term special needs is used very differently in educational settings as opposed to the foster care, child welfare and adoption systems.

In the educational system, “special need” is often used synonymously with special educational needs. Children with emotional, behavioral, learning or psychiatric disorders generally qualify for special education services under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Here’s a summary from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry describing how children qualify for additional services at school. Used within this context, the term “special needs” would be used to describe a very broad group of children and include kids with the full range of disabilities that often pose impediments to active involvement at church. Terri Mauro from About.com has a very nice summary article describing the scope of conditions falling under this broader rubric of “special needs.”

In the social welfare, adoption and foster care systems, the designation of “special needs” refers to qualifications under state law that qualify children and families for Federal financial assistance. Here’s an excellent summary from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of the differences in the use of the term “special needs” in the child welfare system. Kids who meet the legal definition of “special needs” for the purposes of the adoption and foster care systems will often not qualify for special education services. Likewise, kids with identified special needs at school may not qualify for additional funding or services when they’re adopted. To further confound the issue, the legal definition of “special needs” is different from state to state. Here’s a website listing the state-by-state definitions of “special needs.” A child can lose their designation of having “special needs” simply by their family relocating.

As more and more churches are led to serve and include kids with disabilities and their families, we need a common language if we’re going to work together effectively. In the absence of a common understanding of the definition of “special needs,” should we consider using different language to describe the nature of the ministry that we offer? And are there families impacted by disability for whom use of the term “special needs ministry” represents yet another barrier to church participation/attendance.

Updated August 2, 2014


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About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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2 Responses to What’s the Definition of “Special Needs?”

  1. Steve, I like your thoughts about having a common definition of “special needs.” When I was in the Marines and we started working jointly with the Army, Navy, and Air Force, we quickly discovered that we defined common terms in different ways. This initially caused confusion and hampered discussions and strategies until we were able to come up with a common definition. Once we did that, we were able to work together more productively.
    As far as using the term “special needs” in church, for me, it’s a double-edged sword. I do not particularly like the term because I think the word “special” in “special needs” has more of a negative connotation than positive. If it were me, I’d get rid of it.
    Yet, when it comes to having a term that readily identifies that fact that your church has a ministry that focuses on, and serves, people who have disabilities….”special needs” is the term that is most widely recognizable.


  2. I much prefer the word “disability” when describing people with disabilities, is there a reason that many people to prefer “special needs” over “disability”?


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