An Introduction to Special Educational needs

When a person hears the term “special education,” it often brings to mind derogatory images of those weird high school outcasts who rode the ‘short bus’ to school every morning. Or, perhaps images of children with cerebral palsy or autism are the first to pop into one’s head. Many are surprised to learn of the wide spectrum of needs that are placed under the umbrella of special education. Simply put, special education is a type of instruction that is designed to meet the specific and unique needs of select students. Special education is a broad topic, and anyone interested in learning more about it should first seek to understand the different types of special needs, basic laws regarding special education, how special needs are accommodated in a classroom setting, and what type of language is considered respectful when referring to a person with a special need. 

Different Types of Special Needs

There are at least twelve different types of special needs, and each of them can be further subdivided into smaller categories. Some of the more well-known disabilities and disorders include Autism Spectrum Disorder, Learning Disabilities, Intellectual Disabilities, and Physical or Health Disabilities. Some of the lesser-known disabilities and disorders include Emotional/Behavorial Disorders and Communication Disorders. It may come as a surprise to many to discover that even a student who is Gifted and Talented is considered to be a student with special needs! It is important to remember that any time a traditional classroom setting is insufficient to meet a student’s educational needs – that student is considered to have special needs. With a definition so broad, it is not hard to see how so many different categories of needs are included in special education! 

Basic Laws Regarding Special Education

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) was passed, and has been an extremely important act regarding special education in the United States. The act now operates under the name Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, first amended in 1997 and most recently updated in 2004. The act mandated that (A) all children with a special need would be entitled to a free, appropriate, and public education, (B) evaluations of students would be non-discriminatory, (C) each child with a special need would be entitled to an individualized education program, or IEP, (D) the education of a child would take place in the ‘least restrictive environment,’ (E) there would be an implementation of due process procedures, and (F) all parents of children with special needs would have the right to participate fully in their child’s education (Taylor, Smiley & Richards, 2009). 

The first provision of EHA is just as it sounds. Children with special needs are entitled to a free, public education – meaning that their parents should not be forced to spend money sending their child to special, private schools. Children with special needs are also entitled to an appropriate education, meaning that their education meets their instructional demands. It wouldn’t be very appropriate to teach a student who can’t hear by making him sit in on a lecture, would it?

A non-discriminatory evaluation is similar to the concept of an appropriate education. Who would expect a non-English speaking child to be able to pass a state exam that was entirely in English?  This portion of the law also sets standards for evaluation of children in determining whether or not they have a special need.

Once a special need is pinpointed, the student is entitled to an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The IEP is developed by the student (if old enough), the student’s parents, teachers, psychologists, doctors, and any other related personnel. The IEP sets forth, among other things, the educational goals of the student and a plan to meet those goals. If any services are required in helping the student meet the stated goals, those must also be outlined in the IEP.

Students with special needs are entitled to be educated in the ‘least restrictive environment.’ This means that it is unlawful to clump a bunch of students with special needs together in a separate classroom from their typically developing peers. A student with special needs must be allowed to learn alongside his or her peers, unless the student’s disability or disorder is so severe that “education in [a traditional classroom] with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily” (Taylor, Smiley & Richards, 2009). 

Parents of children with special needs are entitled to full access to records, files, and meetings concerning their child. In addition, parents have the option of being able to have private or individual educational evaluations (a second opinion) of their child, and they have the right to take up grievances with legal action if they feel that their child has been educationally violated.

Classroom Accommodations

The accommodations for children with special needs can be as simple as giving extra time on exams to a student with Dyslexia, or it can be as tech-savvy as allowing a child with impaired hearing to wear a special pair of earphones that magnify the voice of his teacher – who speaks into a small microphone when giving class instructions. There is also something called Differentiated Instruction. Differentiated Instruction takes place when a teacher modifies one lesson to meet the needs of his or her deaf students. For example, a teacher may pass out a worksheet that displays pictures of analog clocks – all showing different times. The teacher may instruct the typically developing students in her class to write down what time each clock shows. Then, he or she may instruct the students with learning disabilities only to write down which numbers each minute hand is pointing to. Finally, the teacher might instruct the students who are gifted and talented to not only write down what time each clock displays, but also write down what time it will be, and where the minute and hour-hands will be, forty-five minutes from each displayed time. One lesson – different instructions!

Person-First Language

Finally, it is important to understand the difference between the respectful and disrespectful ways in which we refer to – and thus think about – people with disabilities. One of the most annoying things to a special educator is to hear his or her student referred to as “that autistic boy” or “that handicapped girl.” At first, it doesn’t sound so bad. After all, that ‘boy’ is autistic and that ‘girl’ is in a wheelchair. But when thought about carefully, one realizes that a person should not be defined by their disabilities or disorders. No one says, “There goes that high-blood-pressure guy!” or “here comes that cancerous woman!” to refer to people without disabilities, so why identify a person with disabilities based on their disability alone? A person with a special need is first – and foremost – a person.

Kathie Snow, a strong advocate for people first language and the founder of suggests that we find ways of phrasing our words so as to be sure that a person’s humanity is emphasized before their disability. Instead of “that autistic boy,” one could say, “the boy who has autism.” Speaking respectfully about those with special needs will take one a long way in building solid relationships with the students and their families. 

Special Education is a broad and rewarding field! Those involved in the field will meet many amazing people, see great feats accomplished, change lives, and have their own lives changed!