Characteristics of Adolescents with Disabilities

Youth with disabilities have varying characteristics, strengths, and needs. Terminology in this area can be confusing and inconsistent. Broadly speaking, “functional difficulties” (difficulties carrying out developmentally appropriate tasks or activities, or chronic difficulty with basic functioning (e.g., breathing, eating, chronic pain) that is not dependent on developmental stage) are the most inclusive categorization for disabilities. To best address the needs of youth with disabilities, it is important to specify the underlying condition(s) (the special health care need) that causes the functional difficulty. Special health care needs can be differentiated by whether or not they are chronic.1 The following details further describe how subgroups are or are not differentially affected by disability:

  • There is no meaningful difference reported between girls and boys who have functional difficulties or special health care needs.2
  • Rates of functional difficulties are higher among non-Hispanic Black children and non-Hispanic children of “other” race or multiracial identities than the national average, whereas functional difficulties are less prevalent among non-Hispanic Asian children than the national average.2 Rates of special health care needs are higher among non-Hispanic white and “other” race children than the national average, and lower among Hispanic children of any race and non-Hispanic Asian children than the national average.2
  • Children who live with families disadvantaged by poverty, have parents with low levels of education (e.g., no college degree), or have a mother who is a single parent also are more likely to have functional difficulties.3 Household income is a crucial factor in influencing outcomes for children with disabilities: with low income comes challenges that can increase the negative effects of health limitations (including missed days of school) while higher income can serve as a protective factor against more severe consequences.4
  • According to their parents or caregivers, two thirds (67.1 percent) of adolescents with special health care needs have trouble with one or more of the following: feeling anxious or depressed, acting out, fighting, bullying or arguing, and making and keeping friends. This compares to 32 percent of adolescents without special health care needs.2

Adolescents with disabilities face many social inequities that affect their health and well-being. For instance, youth receiving special education services are more likely to live in low-income households, experience bullying, and be suspended from school than youth not receiving special education services. They are less likely to participate in school sports, spend time with friends regularly, expect to enroll in post-secondary education or training, and have recent paid work experience than their counterparts.5 However, as our society adopts a more inclusive attitude toward diversity of all kinds, these adolescents—and their communities—stand to benefit from a perspective that values their contributions.


1 Halfon, N., Houtrow, A., Larson, K., & Newachek, P. W. (2012). The changing landscape of disability in childhood. Future of Children, 22(1), 13-42. back to top

2 Child Trends’ analysis of 2019 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) public use file. back to top

3 Young, Natalie A. E. (2021). Childhood disability in the United States: 2019. American Community Survey Briefs, U.S. Census Bureau. back to top

4 Abdi, F. M., Seok, D., & Murphey, D. (2020). Children with special health care needs face challenges accessing information, support, and services. Child Trends. back to top

5 Lipscomb, S., Halmson, J., Liu, A. Y., Burghardt, J., Johnson, D. R., & Thurlow, M. (2017). Preparing for life after high school: The characteristics and expectations of youth in special education. Volume 1: Comparisons with other youth. Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012. U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences. back to top