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Understanding the Difference Between Disabilities and Special Needs

In many cases, disabilities and special needs are used interchangeably, but their meanings are different. Disability is a legal term referring to a physical or mental impairment substantially limiting one or more major life activities. Special needs is a more general term referring to any need that is not typical for most people. This term might include a physical disability, a learning disability, a mental health problem, or any other condition that makes it difficult for someone to function in everyday life.

The US government mostly uses the term disability in its benefits programs, and the term special needs is becoming less common. However, the education system and special needs attorneys still employ the term.

There is a significant overlap between disability and special needs. Many individuals experiencing disabilities also have special needs, and vice versa. It makes determining which terms to use or benefits to seek difficult. Do you hire a special needs attorney or a disability attorney to guide you?

Examples of People with Disabilities and Special Needs

While disability and special needs are not mutually exclusive, it can be confusing to explain the situation on a benefits application. Some examples may include:

  • A person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have a disability that makes communicating and interacting with others difficult. They may also have special needs in the form of behavioral interventions or educational support.
  • A person with Down syndrome may have a disability that affects their physical and cognitive development. They may also have special needs like medical care, education support, and social services to navigate daily life.
  • A person with a visual impairment may have a disability that makes it difficult to see. They may also have special needs requiring adaptive technology, mobility assistance, and accessible transportation.

Differences in Applying for SSA Disability and Special Needs Benefits

Applying for SSA disability and special needs benefits is different in several ways. The first is the purpose of the application. SSA disability applications determine eligibility for financial benefits, while special needs applications determine eligibility for education and other support services.

SSA disability benefits are contingent on the ability to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA), while special needs determinations consider an individual’s needs.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a process to make disability determinations, while a school district or other organization generally determines special needs requirements. Many children with special needs become developmentally disabled adults. An SSA disability application will require medical documentation supporting the disability claim, while special needs applications may require medical documentation, education records, and psychological evaluations. An SSA disability application may take months or years to complete and receive, while a special needs process can typically conclude within a few weeks or months.

SSA and Special Needs Determinations

SSA disability determination is a process that identifies if an individual is disabled enough to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. The SSA uses a strict definition of disability that bases a person’s ability to engage in SGA. A person must have a medical condition that prevents them from doing any work they have done in the past or any other kind of work that exists in the national economy to receive formal disability status. SSI benefits are low-income based.

Special needs determination is a process by which a school district (or other organization) determines a child has special needs requiring special education or related services. The definition of special needs varies by state but typically includes children with physical or mental disabilities, learning disabilities, or other conditions affecting their learning ability.

Ultimately the main difference is the purpose of the benefit. SSA disability determinations create eligibility for financial benefits, while special needs determinations determine eligibility for education services.

A Disability Attorney Can Help With Disability and Special Needs

A disability attorney can help you define your loved one’s situation regarding special needs and disability benefits, choosing the correct qualifying benefits. They can help navigate the complex application process and represent you in court if the claim is denied.

Application processes differ, and age plays a significant role in applying for benefits. SSDI is not particularly relevant to a minor who has never been employed. However, SSI can be relevant for low-income children who are either disabled, special needs, or both.

Working adults who qualify for the SSDI earned benefit program will ensure the best application outcome with the help of a disability attorney. Most applications are denied on the first submission, and appeals and reviews take precious time when financial benefits are most needed. Many disability attorneys work on a contingency basis so that initial benefits payments will cover the cost of legal representation.

Understanding the terms special needs and disability and their associated services or benefits through government programs is complex. Criteria and qualifications differ based on needs, medical and psychological evaluations, and age. Our disability attorneys can provide the required oversight and actions to access the best service and benefits possible.

We hope you found this article helpful. If you would like to discuss your particular situation, please contact our New York office or call us at 607-271-9270. We look forward to the opportunity to work with you.

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