What is Special Education?

Special Education programs are designed for those students who are mentally, physically, socially and/or emotionally delayed. This aspect of “delay,” broadly categorized as a developmental delay, signify an aspect of the child's overall development (physical, cognitive, scholastic skills) which place them behind their peers. Due to these special requirements, students’ needs cannot be met within the traditional classroom environment. Special Education programs and services adapt content, teaching methodology and delivery instruction to meet the appropriate needs of each child. These services are of no cost to the family and are available to children until they reach 21 years of age. (States have services set in place for adults who are in need of specialized services after age 21.)

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) defines Special Education as “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability,” but still, what exactly is Special Education? Often met with an ambiguous definition, the umbrella term of Special Education broadly identifies the academic, physical, cognitive and social-emotional instruction offered to children who are faced with one or more disabilities.

Under the IDEA, these disabilities are categorized into the following areas:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

    Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to a developmental disability that significantly affects communication (both verbal and nonverbal) and social interaction. These symptoms are typically evident before the age of three and adversely affect a child’s educational performance. Other identifying characteristics of those with ASD are engagement in repetitive activities/stereotyped movements, resistance to change in environment and daily routine and unusual responses to sensory stimuli.

  • Multiple disabilities

    Children with multiple disabilities are those with concomitant impairments such as intellectual disability + blindness or intellectual disability + orthopedic impairment(s). This combination causes severe educational needs that cannot be met through programs designed for children with a single impairment. (Deaf-blindness is not identified as a multiple disability and is outlined separately by IDEA.)

  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

    Traumatic brain injury refers to an acquired injury to the brain caused by external physical forces. This injury is one that results in a partial or complete functional disability and/or psychosocial impairment and must adversely affect the child’s educational performance. TBI does not include congenital or degenerative conditions or those caused by birth-related trauma.

    TBI applies to injuries that result in impairments in one or more of the following areas:

    • Cognition

    • Reasoning

    • Psychosocial behavior

    • Language

    • Abstract thinking

    • Physical functions

    • Memory

    • Judgment

    • Information processing

    • Attention

    • Problem-solving

    • Speech

  • Speech/language impairment

    Speech or language impairments refer to communications disorders such as stuttering, impaired articulation or language/voice impairments that have an adverse affect on a child’s educational performance.

  • Intellectual Disability (also referred to as “Mental Retardation”)

    Intellectual disability is defined as a significantly below average functioning of overall intelligence that exists alongside deficits in adaptive behavior and is manifested during the child’s developmental period causing adverse affects on the child’s educational performance.

  • Visual Impairment (including Blindness)

    Visual impairment, which includes blindness, refers to impairment in one’s vision that, even after correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term “visual impairment” is inclusive of those with partial sight and blindness.

  • Deaf; Hearing Impairment

    Deafness means a child’s hearing impairment is so severe that it impacts the processing of linguistic information with or without amplification and adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Hearing impairment refers to an impairment (fluctuating or permanent) that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

  • Deaf-Blindness

    Deaf-blindness refers to concomitant visual and hearing impairments. This combination causes severe communication, developmental and educational needs that cannot be accommodated through special education programs solely for those children with blindness or deafness.

  • Developmental Delay

    Developmental delay is a term designated for children birth to age nine, and is defined as a delay in one or more of the following areas: cognitive development, physical development, socio-emotional development, behavioral development or communication.

  • Emotional Disturbance

    Emotional disturbance refers to a condition that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics both over an extended period of time and to an exceptional degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

    • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors

    • An inability to build and/or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers

    • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances

    • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness/depression

    • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems

    Emotional disturbance does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted unless they are determined to have an emotional disturbance as per IDEA’s regulations.

  • Specific Learning Disability

    Specific learning disability refers to a range of disorders in which one or more basic psychological processes involved in the comprehensive/usage of language — both spoken or written — establishes an impairment in one’s ability to listen, think, read, write, spell and/or complete mathematical calculations. Included are conditions such as perceptual disabilities, dyslexia (also dyscalculia, dysgraphia), brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disabilities do not include learning problems that are the result of visual, auditory or motor disabilities, intellectual disability, emotional disturbance or those who are placed at an environmental/economic disadvantage.

  • Orthopedic Impairment

    Orthopedic impairment(s) refer to severe orthopedic impairments that adversely affect a child’s academic performance. Orthopedic impairment(s) include those caused by congenital anomalies and diseases, as well impairments by other causes (i.e. Cerebral Palsy).

  • Other Health Impairment(s)

    Other health impairments refer to a limitation in strength, vitality or alertness, resulting in limited alertness to one’s educational environment. These impairments are often due to chronic or acute health problems — including ADD/ADHD, epilepsy, and Tourette’s syndrome — and adversely affect the child’s educational performance.

In order to be deemed eligible for state Special Education services, IDEA states that a student’s disability must adversely affect his or her academic achievement and/or overall educational performance. While defining these adverse effects are dependent on a student’s categorical disability, eligibility is determined through a process of evaluations by professionals such as a child’s pediatrician/specialists, school psychologists and social workers. After a student is deemed able to receive such services, their progress is annually reviewed. Read more about evaluations and IEP reviews here.

Further Reading