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What is Special Education?

According to Understood, special education’s focus is on helping children with disabilities to learn, with education being “tailored to meet the needs of students with disabilities.” As each child’s needs differ, so the “services and supports that one child receives may be very different from what another child receives.” Special education refers to a range of services, which can be provided in different ways and in different settings. For children who qualify for special education, each will receive individualized teaching and other key resources. Any specialists working with each child will focus their strengths, as well as their challenges.

Schools are required, by law, to provide special education in the least restrictive environment, which means that conversations should begin with the supports the child needs to succeed in a general education classroom. Schools use many strategies and supports to help students with disabilities succeed in general education settings. These strategies can include assistive technology, accommodations, modifications, and paraprofessionals, who help students with various tasks. These strategies are specific to each child and are discussed in each child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a legally-binding document developed by parents, educators, and administrators working together. There is a process to get to the IEP, which is described by Understood in their guide, Understanding IEPs. Children may receive special education services and supports from pre-Kindergarten through high school. Some students may also receive services and supports to transition from secondary to post-secondary education or to transition from school to work.

Laws that cover education for children with disabilities include the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which ensures that children with disabilities have the opportunity to receive a free and appropriate education and ensures that schools provide students with disabilities the  special education and related services that they need, free of charge to the family. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) discusses how Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and IDEA are interrelated and how both laws support the education of children with disabilities in an article called Protecting Students with Disabilities. To learn more about these and other laws that cover students with disabilities, please visit NARIC’s FAQ on laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities in the US.

There are several agencies and organizations that provide information to and assist parents of children with disabilities in special education. Visit NARIC’s Librarian’s Picks on Education and Children with Special Needs to learn more about these organizations. Visit NARIC’s Ready Reference on Education for education-related organizations that focus on resources, technical assistance, and preparing for college. NARIC’s Research In Focus series has several articles on special education, including an article on research about socialization challenges for college students with autism spectrum disorder. If you would like to see what the NIDILRR grantees are working on in relation to special education, search the NIDILRR Program Database or search REHABDATA for the most recent NIDILRR-funded articles on special education and related topics. If you require assistance or have any questions, contact NARIC’s information specialists for assistance.