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What Is Special Education?

Special education is the general term used to describe the variety of educational programs and services available to help students to learn and, ultimately, prepare for adulthood. Special education programs and services assist children with disability in obtaining an education in the least restrictive educational environment possible.


Special education is designed to maximize your child’s learning potential

Discovering their child requires special education services can, at first, be disheartening for parents. However, parents quickly find that special education is designed to specifically enhance their child’s opportunities to learn, socialize, thrive and mature.

Current legislation recognizes “Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Congress recognized that prior to the enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 the educational and civil needs of those with disabilities were not being fully met in the public school system. Since the Act, members of Congress have improved education policies, accessibility to education and inclusion by specifically addressing the following within the public school system:

  • providing appropriate educational services for those with disabilities
  • securing inclusive and accessible access to the public school system and educational learning opportunities
  • providing opportunities to be successfully educated alongside peers
  • discovering ways to identify previously undiagnosed disabilities which prevented a successful educational experience
  • securing adequate resources within the public school system so as not to drive families to find services elsewhere

School is a learning environment. Special education programs are designed to evaluate a child’s abilities and needs in order to devise a plan to educate the child with disabilities. Increased efforts have begun to include students with special needs as completely as possible within the broader school community as well as within society at large.

Society’s overall view of students with special needs has shifted, with less emphasis placed in defining students by the nature of their disability or impairment and more on promoting their ability and potential.

Toward that end, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education states its mission as “provid(ing) leadership to achieve full integration and participation in society of people with disabilities…” The emphasis is on developing supports and services that promote accessibility and inclusion so an individual with special needs can learn, live, work, travel and participate within society independently and without obstacles.

Underscoring that goal, laws are in place to clearly define and protect the rights of special education students, as well as to give parents (or legal guardians) an increased role in determining the type of services their student receives.


Special education: The role of legislation

In the United States, special education programs are guaranteed by such laws as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, more commonly known as IDEA.

Though individual programs can vary by state, federal law specifies that all special needs students must be provided a Free Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE, from preschool through age 21.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act specifically defines those students who qualify for special education services and supports as a “child with disability” whose educational performance is adversely affected. IDEA defines ‘child with a disability” as a child between the age of 3 through 9 years of age that may, “at the discretion of the State and the local educational agency, include a child (i) experiencing developmental delays, as defined by the State and as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures, in 1 or more of the following area: physical development; social or emotional development; or adaptive development; and (ii) who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.” Potential special education students are eligible under 13 specific category definitions as defined in the IDEA:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Mental Retardation
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health impairment
  • Specific learning disability
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual Impairment

Those with cerebral palsy are specifically covered under the law’s provisions for students with orthopedic impairments.

IDEA also specifies the types of services to be provided as well as the setting. It includes the possibility of mainstreaming – placing the student with special needs in a regular classroom setting for a full or partial school day.

Special education services are provided under specific plans or programs, each determined by the student’s age, abilities, needs, and environment. It is drafted with input from parents and school officials.


From birth to adulthood

Unlike general education programs, special education programs can begin before age 2 and continue until a student is 21. Federal mandates require a highly specialized education program for each student. They also require that states conduct Child Find activities. Child Find is an effort required under IDEA to identify individuals with disability or impairment within their jurisdiction who may benefit by early intervention and special education programs and services.

An Individualized Family Service Plan, or FSP, is drafted on behalf of those students age 2 or younger.

Such a plan includes input from parents as well as those providing health care and other specialized services to meet the child’s specific needs.

Designed to provide a unified plan to monitor and encourage the child’s development, the FSP sets family goals and emphasizes everyday learning opportunities, both indoors and outdoors.

An Individual Education Program, or IEP, is required for those three and older.

Parents are included on the team that drafts their student’s IEP. Other members commonly include teachers, special education teachers, curriculum specialists as well as other staff members depending upon a child’s individual needs.

IEP reports, generally issued along with student report cards, include an up-to-the-minute evaluation of the student’s academic performance and functional ability, outline measurable yearly goals, and list the accommodations and services each student will receive.

Physical therapy, counseling services, assistive technology, as well as mobility assistance and transportation services, as needed, are among the items covered.

Parents (or legal guardians) are part of the team that drafts their student’s IEP and the program cannot be implemented without their written consent. District teachers and curriculum specialists are also part of the team. The student may also be included.

Regularly-scheduled IEP team meetings also allow parents to review their student’s progress and give feedback as to how the overall program is – or isn’t – meeting their student’s needs.

A Transition into Adulthood Plan, covering the student’s education up to age 21, is required by the time the student turns 16. At age 16 to 21 the emphasis is on developing vocation.


Mainstreaming and other settings

Special education services are provided in a variety of settings.

Mainstreaming, placing special needs students into non-special education has become an increasing aspect of many special education programs.

Mainstreaming is seen by many educators and advocates as allowing special education students to better connect with others. While encouraged whenever possible, mainstreaming is not guaranteed for all students.

Instead, federal law calls for education to be provided the Least Restrictive Environment, or LRE.

Under the LRE concept, special education programs may be provided individually or in classes including students with similar needs. Some programs may even be provided outside a traditional school setting, including at the student’s home.

In some areas, options may also be available to have the student educated in home school, health care facilities, or private school settings.


Parental role

Special education in the U.S. is based upon a team approach including parents and educators though parents also retain their rights as advocates for their student.

In addition to their required participation in drafting an IEP, parents retain the right to challenge any or all aspects of their student’s educational program.

Challenges can be made – and modifications suggested – during regularly-scheduled IEP meetings. Parents also have the right to include outside individuals, including but not limited to doctors and therapists, on the IEP team.

Should disagreements remain; parents can also seek mediation allowing an impartial outside observer work with all parties to reach agreement. Should that fail to produce an agreement, parents may also seek a due process hearing in which the outside specialist mandates a settlement after hearing from all sides, or even appeal to the agency governing education in their state.


Meeting the challenge

While individual circumstances might vary, special education students can succeed, both academically and in the broader society, particularly with an effective IEP is in place.

Special education isn’t a privilege but a right of every child. IEP’s are written plans, carefully constructed with a particular child’s best interests in mind, which commits a school’s resources towards specific measurable goals and objectives. IEP’s are reviewed, monitored and revised with the best intention of providing services to advance a child’s learning potential. Parents remain the best advocates to assure their children’s rights are upheld.

More information on IDEA can be found at IDEA ».


Special education defined

Following is a glossary of acronyms commonly deployed within special education services and programs:

ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act – Reauthorized and broadened by Congress in 2008, ADA protects the rights of disabled individuals not just in education but in the workforce and throughout society.

FAPE – Free Appropriate Public Education – FAPE is the governing philosophy for public education in the U.S. It ensures all disabled students the right to a free public education, through age 21, at no charge to their parents.

IDEA – The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – Authorized by Congress, IDEA is the governing law for special education in the United States.

IEE – Independent Educational Evaluation – Parents can request an IEE if they dispute the results of the initial evaluation determining their child’s eligibility for special education services.

IEP – Individualized Education Plan – An IEP is the official outline covering services, activities and accommodations to be provided each individual special education student.

LRE – Least Restrictive Environment – LRE is the prevailing philosophy regarding classroom placement of special education students in the U.S. It requires special education students to be educated alongside other students to the greatest degree possible.


Special Education Legislation

In the U.S., special education is governed under three main documents:

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established the concept of a Free Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE. Under FAPE, public school districts cannot deny services to any student based upon their disability. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established the concept of a FAPE. Under FAPE, public school districts cannot deny services to any student based upon their disability.

Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA

Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was first adopted in 1990 and reauthorized in 2008, generally extends anti-discriminatory measures among all other services or agencies receiving federal funding.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, is a federal law was adopted in 1990 by Congress and reauthorized in 2004. It spells about eligibility requirements for special education services and indicates how services should be provided. While individual states are given discretion in how to meet IDEA standards, the U.S. Department of Education listed 10 specific requirements which, together, make up a general special education timetable.

  1. Identification – States are required to identify all potential special education students through a Child Find agency for evaluation. Parents may contact their state’s agency on their own to request an evaluation. Evaluations can also be recommended by school professionals.
  2. Evaluation – Specialists examine the child for signs of the suspected impairment at no cost to parents. Parents who dispute the findings can request and Independent Educational Evaluation, or IEE, at the school district’s expense.
  3. Eligibility – Trained professionals and parents review the evaluation to determine if the child qualifies for special education under any of the 13 specific categories spelled out by IDEA. Parents may request a hearing if they dispute their child’s determination of eligibility.
  4. Team building – If the child is deemed eligible, representatives of the child’s school have 30 days to form a team to draft an Individual Education Program, or IEP, on their behalf. Parents are part of the team.
  5. Scheduling – The initial team meeting, in which is IEP is created is perhaps the most critical portion of the process. Parents must be notified in advance and it must be scheduled at a time and place available to all. Parents are allowed to bring anyone they believe has special knowledge about or expertise in dealing with their child.
  6. Drafting the program – The IEP is written at the initial team meeting and – with revisions – will guide a student‘s education through at least age 21. At that time, decisions are made about services and accommodations to be provided the student. In some states, determination of classroom settings – including mainstreaming – is also decided. Parents must give their consent in writing for the IEP to begin. Parents must also be given a copy of the IEP. If they dispute the plan, parents can seek mediation, a due process hearing or file an appeal with the state.
  7. IEP in action – Services begin as soon as parents agree to the IEP. A copy is provided to the child’s teachers and all other service providers, clearly spelling out their responsibilities under the IEP.
  8. Progress reports – Each IEP must contain clearly measurable goals to determine a student’s academic and social success. Reports on the student’s progress must be issued at least as often as regular report cards.
  9. IEP review – The IEP team also meets once a year – or more frequently if parents request – to review the entire program. Services and placements may be altered based on the student’s needs and progress. By age 14, the student’s IEP must include information on the classes necessary for the student to meet additional educational or occupational goals. By age 16, the IEP must clearly define the transition services needed to help the student meet those goals. Review sessions also allow parents to question all or any aspects of the IEP. Parents retain their rights to appeal any recommendations.
  10. Reevaluation – Students must be reevaluated every three years to determine if they continue to meet still qualify as disabled under IDEA standards. Reevaluation can occur earlier if requested by parents of the child’s teacher.

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