What is a disability?

Children learn at different speeds and in different ways. Children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for them to learn than most children of the same age.

If you think your child has a special educational need or disability, find out what you should do to get them assessed and get additional support in school.

Get help with your child's progress

What are special educational needs?

A child or young person has special educational needs (SEN) if both of the following apply to the child:

  • They have a learning difficulty or disability which makes it much harder for them to learn than other pupils of the same age.
  • They require special educational provision to be made for them.

SEN is a legal term. A detailed description can be found in the SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years.

What is a disability?

A disability is described in the Equality Act 2010 as:

"A physical or mental impairment which has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities."

Not all children and young people with a disability have SEN, but often, there is an overlap.

Are there different types of SEND?

The SEND code of practice: 0-25 years sets out four main areas of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

These are:

  • communication and interaction needs
  • cognition and learning difficulties
  • social, emotional and mental health difficulties
  • sensory and physical needs.

Some children and young people may have to SEND in more than one of these areas, but most children with SEND, they will attend their local, mainstream school.

Communication and interaction needs

Children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) might:

  • struggle to talk or say what they want to
  • find it hard to understand what other people are saying
  • find conversations and play confusing or challenging.

Cognition and learning difficulties

Children and young people might:

  • learn at a slower pace than others
  • find the curriculum difficult
  • struggle with organisation and memory
  • have a specific difficulty, for example, in literacy or numeracy.

Social, emotional and mental health difficulties

Children and young people might:

  • find relationships difficult
  • appear withdrawn or isolated
  • behave in ways that affect their learning, for example, by being disruptive
  • do things that impact their health and wellbeing.

Sensory and physical needs

Children and young people might have a disability, such as:

  • a visual impairment (VI)
  • a hearing impairment (HI)
  • a physical difficulty.

These difficulties can be age-related and may fluctuate over time, meaning they:

  • may find it hard to access a school because of their disability
  • might need extra support or specialist equipment.

Children and young people with multi-sensory impairment (MSI) have a combination of vision and hearing difficulties.

Information on how to provide services for deafblind children and young people is available through the 'Care and support for deafblind children and adults guidance' published by the Department of Health.

Other medically-diagnosed disabilities

Some children and young people have other medically diagnosed disabilities which may impact their learning.

Support for parents, carers and young people for these disabilities is available from the local health services and other agencies.