Current Events Updated March 10, 2020

Past, Present, and Future of Special Education

By The SHARE Team

The term “special education” refers to instructional content, delivery, equipment and methods specifically geared toward students who have one or more special needs. These needs can vary from physical, cognitive or mental disabilities to developmental disorders and learning disabilities. The special education process ensures that children with disabilities have a better chance to succeed and achieve their educational goals.

Before crucial legislation became law, few children with disabilities received an adequate education. They frequently suffered discrimination and isolation. Key legislation, especially the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, ensured that all children received an equal opportunity for an appropriate education.

Past: The IDEA of special education

Special education came to the forefront of education with the passage of the original legislation in 1975, known then as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), or Public Law (PL) 94-142. The law experienced several modifications and revisions over about 30 years, and then between 2004 to 2006, re-authorization. At that time, this law was called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

The IDEA stipulated how public schools and teaching staff should meet and manage the educational requirements of students with disabilities and special needs, particularly on how to ensure these students had an equal opportunity to learn with their peers. In other words, the IDEA mandated that regardless of circumstances, all children must receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

The “free” part of the term meant that children in public schools who have disabilities must receive necessary education services and support from public funds rather than through payment from their families or private organizations. Private schools are not held to FAPE standards; however, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) holds them accountable for preventing discrimination against children with disabilities and requires them to make a reasonable effort to accommodate all students.

In conjunction with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, the IDEA stipulated that educators in public schools must use a variety of accommodations and modifications to remove learning barriers for children with disabilities. Other components of the IDEA addressed giving children with disabilities the opportunity to learn with their non-disabled peers in the least restrictive environment (LRE) whenever reasonably possible, rather than in isolation in separate rooms or classes, and to develop Individualized Education Plans/Programs (IEPs) to set clear objectives and goals for their learning experience.

Present: Challenges and triumphs of special education

Since the passage of IDEA and NCLB with periodic revisions to improve the efficacy of those laws, children with a variety of disabilities have been able to receive education appropriate to their needs. The IDEA covers a wide variety of disabilities and disorders. The classification of a student’s special needs, as well as the stipulations in his or her IEP, dictates the best way to help that child overcome barriers to learning and have a greater chance for a successful learning experience. Below are some of the special needs these laws address and terms that describe special education techniques.

  • Developmental disabilities and delays: A child’s development obviously includes physical growth, but it also encompasses acquisition of motor, cognitive, language skills, as well as social skills. Most children attain designated developmental milestones in these areas within specific age ranges. When they don’t, they may have some form of disability or delay interfering with their ability to progress. Once a child’s doctor has confirmed a specific developmental disability or delay, the child is eligible for special education services.
  • Learning disabilities: Learning requires the ability to process information and then to organize it in a way that’s comprehensible. Children with learning disabilities struggle processing and understanding information, which then affects how they communicate, write, complete mathematical equations, and data organization. Developmental disabilities and delays are not the same as learning disabilities, though they may co-exist. Certain mental health or behavioral disorders, along with autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADD/ADHD), commonly co-exist with learning disabilities. A diagnosis confirming a learning disability typically qualifies a child for special education services.
  • Individualized Education Plans or Programs: IEPs play a strategic role in children’s special education services. The IEP is actually a legal contract between the child, his or her parent and the teacher, school and other professional staff. It covers such areas as the child’s specific disability, classification and placement, the special services he or she should receive, and academic and behavioral goals. The IEP also usually includes progress reports from teachers and therapists and indicates the percentage of time the child receives regular or general education services.
  • LRE and the inclusive classroom: Including, rather than segregating, students with special needs is the concept behind the inclusive classroom. This represents the least restrictive environment (LRE) for children with disabilities and has proven to be more conducive to academic success for the majority of those with special needs. Some children with severe disabilities often need special accommodations away from other students for their own and others’ safety.
  • Assistive technology: Autism consultant Susan Stokes defined assistive technology as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system … that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” Using various forms of assistive technology was another feature of the IDEA to ensure students with disabilities or special needs have the best opportunity to overcome their barriers to learning.

Future: Protecting special education funding

Despite all the advances and successes in special education and those students who derived benefits from it, special education budgets face constant scrutiny from government leaders. One budget cut proposed in 2012 could have adversely affected more than 6 million students with special needs and resulted in layoffs of more than 10,000 special education teachers and other support staff.

State and regional organizations such as San Francisco’s Community Alliance for Special Education (CASE) and national non-profit groups like Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) provide special education advocacy and resources. Parents concerned about their child’s access to special education benefits should contact special education organizations as well as legislators in their area for more information.

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