Special Education: What Does It Really Mean?

Special Education.  We’ve all heard the term, but some of us are probably more familiar with what it means than others.  Special education, in its truest sense, refers to specialized educational services that are provided to students with disabilities pursuant to the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education law (often referred to as “IDEA”).  This law first was passed in 1975 (it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act at that time) and has been updated and amended several times since its initial passage.

Prior to the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, children with disabilities had no legal right to attend school.  The 1975 law changed that and not only did students have the right to attend school, but they had the right to a “free, appropriate public education.”  While this term is subject to interpretation and has been the focus of much litigation over the past few decades, it is a broad term that is meant to ensure that students with disabilities are actually educated and not just tolerated or watched after while they are in school.    A fundamental tenant of IDEA is that each child is an individual with unique needs, therefore educational programs must be tailored to address those individualized needs.

As a parent of an 11-year old son with autism, I am grateful for IDEA and what it does for kids like my son, but its implementation has been frustratingly slow and insufficient.  Congress has never fully funded the law, which means the states do not receive the amount of money required from the federal government that everyone acknowledges it takes to provide the services required by IDEA.  A more significant concern, however, from my perspective, is that some of the underlying philosophies of the law are still not embraced by many school systems, educators and administrators.   Two examples of such forsaken philosophies are: (1) students with disabilities (including kids with intellectual disabilities) can actually learn; and (2) students with disabilities ought to be educated alongside their typical peers to the greatest extent possible.

IDEA requires that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning an environment where the student has the greatest access to non-disabled peers.  Despite these provisions, school systems, educators and administrators historically have utilized a segregated model for educating students with disabilities.  That is, systems have created “special” classrooms for students with disabilities in which the systems claim that the needs of the students can be met.  The use of categorical and segregated services has resulted in tens of thousands of children being completely cut off from their typical peers which is inconsistent with both the spirit and the letter of IDEA.

The problem with this approach has many layers.  First, and this is something I have witnessed in many a “special education” classroom, very little instruction takes place in segregated classrooms.  More often than not, the general education curriculum is not available in those classrooms, so teachers are left to devise their own curricula, and students are not provided with the opportunity to progress through the same curriculum provided to their peers.  Second, there is less accountability for teachers and service providers when children with significant disabilities are grouped together in a classroom without the “eyes and ears” of typical children to ensure that abuses are not occurring.  Finally, when children with disabilities are cut off from their peers, they miss out on one of the most valuable learning tools – the ability to watch and imitate peers and to regularly engage in “typical” social interactions and activities.

Over the past few decades, research has shown that many, if not most, children affected by intellectual disabilities have the capacity to learn when research-based strategies and interventions are used.  They may learn at a slower rate than their typically-developing peers, but they learn, nonetheless.   Some states and local school districts are doing a better job implementing these teaching strategies than others.  And while there is now a national push towards the utilization of inclusive practices focused on meeting the needs of students with disabilities in the classroom, too many children still spend their days in very segregated classrooms without access to their peers or to an actual curriculum.

Things indeed are changing, but slowly, and not without the fierce advocacy of parents, advocates and other individualswho care deeply about these issues.  This blog will be devoted to discussing these and other issues related to special education.  I look forward to exploring this important topic with my readers.

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