“Special education” is a term often used in reference to educational services, accommodations, and modifications for children with disabilities. The main federal law that guarantees special education rights is the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), although Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also influence special education policies.
Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)
IDEA mandates that all children must be given a free and appropriate education (FAPE). In this context, “appropriate” means that children with disabilities must be provided with educational services designed to meet their unique needs. IDEA also states that children must be taught in the least restrictive environment (LRE), which essentially means that whenever possible, children with special needs should be taught alongside their non-disabled peers (1).
Although IDEA is often discussed in relation to “children,” it mandates that public schools provide special educational services to people ages 3-21. Children under the age of three may be eligible for early intervention programs outside of the public school system.
Evaluations and Eligibility for Special Education
A student may be evaluated for special education services at the request of their parents or the school (2). Parents must be informed about, and consent to, evaluation procedures, placements into special education programs, or major changes to their child’s education. If they disagree with the school’s recommendations or believe a school is failing to educate their child, they will be given an impartial hearing (3).
Students eligible for special education services include those who have been identified as having one of the following 13 types of disability:
- Specific learning disability: These are conditions that primarily affect certain activities. Examples include dyslexia, which involves trouble with reading, and dyscalculia, which entails difficulty with mathematics and other number-focused tasks.
- Other health impairment: This category includes conditions that affect things like attention, energy, or strength. One example is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Emotional disturbance: This includes anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health issues.
- Speech or language impairment
- Blindness or partial blindness
- Hearing impairment: This is considered to be less serious than deafness, and may change over time.
- Orthopedic/physical impairments: One common example is cerebral palsy (CP).
- Intellectual disability
- Traumatic brain injury
- Multiple disabilities
Special Education: Important Vocabulary
Here, we review some of the terms frequently used in the field of special education, so that parents and caretakers can easily familiarize themselves with the lingo and feel more prepared to discuss their child’s schooling:
Types of Classrooms for Special Education Students
Self-contained classroom: This is a classroom only for special education students. It typically has a lower student: teacher ratio and provides the opportunity for more one-on-one teaching. Sometimes these are referred to as “special ed classrooms.”
Inclusion classroom: This is a classroom that includes both students who receive special education services and those who do not. The classes are co-taught by general education and special education teachers.
Out-of-district placement: This may be an option when the local school is not equipped to provide sufficient accomodations for a student. A district may instead pay to educate the child at another facility, such as a private school or a public school in another district.
General classroom or “Mainstreaming”: A general classroom is primarily composed of students who do not have special needs. “Mainstreaming” is when a special education student spends part of the day in a general classroom (2).
Homeschool classroom/Homeschooling: In all fifty states, it is legal for students, with and without special needs, to be taught at home. In some states, homeschoolers are eligible for special education services from the government (4).
Hospitalized/homebound options: Public schools must also provide services to students who are hospitalized or homebound for medical reasons. A visiting instructor (who will be either certified in general education or special education, depending on the student’s needs) will collaborate with a student’s school teachers and ensure that they are able to keep up with their studies as best they can (5).
Other Important Special Education Terms
Accommodations: These are changes that allow a student to “access” the general curriculum. For example, a teacher may read test questions aloud to a student with a reading disability. Another common accommodation is extra testing time. With accommodations, a student should still learn a similar amount of material as their peers who aren’t in special education programs.
Modifications: Modifications are similar to accommodations, except that learning goals may also be changed. For example, a student may be given homework and tests that are adjusted to fit their skill level.
Assistive technology: Assistive technology helps people with disabilities accomplish things they might otherwise be unable to. Examples include a laptop that could help a student with a handwriting disability to take notes, or a screen reader to help students with vision impairments keep up with their classmates. Assistive technology should be provided free of charge to students who need it.
Paraprofessionals: These are teachers aides who can help special education students with certain tasks (2).
Related services: Students in special education programs may also be eligible for related services, such as (this list is far from exhaustive):
- Speech-language therapy
- Physical therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Psychological services
- Audiology (1)
Individualized education program (IEP): Under IDEA, children (defined as ages 3-21) who are eligible for special education services must be given an individualized education program (IEP). This is a formal document detailing the services that will be provided to them, and also sets some educational goals. IEPs are created in a collaborative effort between a team of professionals and the child’s family; parents/guardians must be kept informed throughout the process.
Individualized family service plan (IFSP): Early intervention is another important component of special education. IDEA mandates that children under the age of three who qualify for such services will be given be given an individualized family service plan (IFSP). This functions similarly to an IEP, but is for babies and toddlers. If at the age of three a child is still eligible for special education services, they will then get an IEP (1).
504 Plans: Covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 504 plans are distinct from IEPs in that they don’t provide individualized instruction. Students with 504 plans are taught in general education classrooms, but they may receive accommodations and related services, and occasional modifications to course plans.
Which is the main federal law that guarantees special education rights?
IDEA is the main federal law that guarantees special education rights, but Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA also influence certain policies.
IDEA states that children must be taught in the least restrictive environment (LRE). What does this mean?
This rule prevents unnecessary segregation and ensures that special education students are able to follow the general curriculum as closely as possible.
To what age range do public schools provide special education services?
Although literature on special education often refers to “children,” public schools must provide services to students ages 3-21. Children under the age of three may be eligible for government-funded early intervention programs.
Some students who receive special education services may spend part of their day in a general education classroom. What is this called?
Many special education students are “mainstreamed” into general classrooms for part of their day.
What is a paraprofessional?
Also known as paras and para-pros, paraprofessionals assist teachers with a wide array of tasks, including supporting special education students.
- PBS Parents: Educational Rights Overview
- Understood.org: Understanding Special Education
- DREDF: A comparison of ADA, IDEA, and Section 504
- Understood.org: Homeschooling Kids with Learning and Attention Issues: What You Need to Know
- Michigan.gov: Providing Homebound and Hospitalized Educational Services for Michigan Public School Pupils