Special needs is a term that is used generally to describe anyone with a physical, cognitive, or mental disability, challenge, or delay. Depending on the audience or the discipline, the term can have varied meanings and applications. When referencing issues that are completely medical in nature, more specific phrasing will be used, such as the term special medical needs. This category is typically used when referencing diagnoses such as hemophilia and epilepsy.

Within the foster care/adoption system, the term special needs has a much broader definition. With regard to adoption, it is a legal term applying to those eligible for federal financial assistance. This can include those individuals with disabilities but also includes other demographic factors such as age, ethnicity, and membership in a sibling group.

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