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I thought that when discussing education, the term "special needs" referred to individuals with severe mental disability, such as having a very low IQ.

However, this question on academia.SE talks about a special needs student studying at university, and the Wikipedia article on special needs gives a more broad definition (such as including non-insurmountable physical disabilities), as does oxforddictionaries.com.

By contrast, this answer on English.SE talks about "special", "special education", and (from the question) "special needs" referring to severe mental and learning disabilities.

What does "special needs" mean? Does its meaning differ between when it's used by the general public and when it's used by people in the education sector?

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    I think the meaning is broader, but it is used mainly in educational context. Special needs history: For centuries, individuals with disabilities were marginalized and hidden away. In more recent times, they were routinely institutionalized, denied education and subject to discrimination in employment, housing, transportation and many other aspects of daily life. But self-advocates and supportive family members have been tenacious in their efforts to bring about change, and much progress has resulted.specialneedsalliance.org/special-needs-history – user66974 May 3 '16 at 10:45
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    UK perspective: www3.hants.gov.uk/sen-home. – Max Williams May 3 '16 at 10:59
  • Special Education has a Wikipedia entry. – Elliott Frisch May 3 '16 at 11:00
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    Having two articles with similar names without linking to each other in the disambiguation section of the page is rather confusing! – Andrew Grimm May 3 '16 at 13:04
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No, the term “special needs” does not usually only refer to severe mental disability. The broadest definition (from ODO) is:

(In the context of children at school) particular educational requirements resulting from learning difficulties, physical disability, or emotional and behavioural difficulties: "the absorption of children with special needs into mainstream schools"

This is the common understanding of the term in the UK and Australia, but it may have a different meaning depending on the country it's used in. The Wikipedia page on special needs is poorly written and US-centric, and shouldn't be regarded as authoritative, but it does suggest that in a non-educational context the term is more narrowly defined in the USA. The English.SE answer suggests that even in an educational context the USA has a more limited definition for special needs.

In Australia and the UK at least, the mainstreaming of children with special needs in schools has been happening for so long that the vast majority of parents aged under 50 would understand the term as the ODO defines it.

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