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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, “activity limitations” (difficulties carrying out developmentally appropriate tasks or activities) are the most inclusive categorization for disabilities. We can turn next to specifying the underlying condition(s) (the special healthcare need) that causes the limitation. Special healthcare needs can, in turn, be differentiated by whether or not they are chronic.1 Following are additional details on how subgroups are differentially affected by disability: 

  • Boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to be reported as having an activity limitation,1 and nearly 40 percent more likely to have a special healthcare need.2
  • Activity limitations are more prevalent among Hispanic and Asian children than among white and black children,1 but special healthcare needs are more commonly reported among black, white, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander children than among Hispanic and Asian children.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 activity limitations. Household income is a crucial factor in influencing outcomes for children with disabilities: with low income comes challenges that often increase the negative effects of health limitations (including missed days of school) while higher incomes often serve as a protective factor against more severe consequences.1-2
  • According to their parents, nearly two thirds of adolescents with special healthcare 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.3

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. 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.4 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.
2 Health Resources & Services Administration, Maternal & Child Health Bureau. (2013). The National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs. Chartbook 2009-2010, p. 9. Retrieved from https://mchb.hrsa.gov/cshcn0910/
3 Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health. National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs. Retrieved from http://childhealthdata.org/learn/NS-CSHCN
4 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.
Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on July 22, 2019