Where to Begin
One of the last things that most parents want to hear is that their child has a disability and requires special education services. You may begin to feel panicked when you are presented with the overwhelming amount of information about special education available on the Internet. As difficult as it seems, try not to worry. Although there is a lot to learn, you can begin with a basic understanding of the special education process, and continue to learn as you go.
The information on this site is a good starting point from which to begin your journey into the world of special education. Here you will find information about identification, assessments, laws, interventions and specialized academic support and services. Start slowly. As you begin to understand the process, you will feel more comfortable attending meetings and advocating for your child.
A Brief History
Before you can really begin to understand Special Education, you need to understand its history. Quite simply, it all began with the parents.
Remember that scene in Forrest Gump when Sally Field’s character sat in the principal’s office of her local public school and learned that her child would not be allowed to attend school with other students? The principal told her that Forrest’s IQ was too low for the state standard. You can see the look of determination cross Mrs. Gump’s face, and you know she will not be taking “no” for an answer. Although you may not realize it, this scene is actually a fairly accurate portrayal of what parents of students with disabilities faced prior to the mid-1970s. It was parents such as Ms. Field’s character—people who did not accept that their children deserved sub-par educations in separate schools—who took on the school districts. These brave parents sued for, and finally won, the right to send their children to public schools.
Although we now take it for granted that students with disabilities are allowed to attend public schools, it was only in 1975 that it became law. The Education of all Handicapped Children Act of 1975 was the first legislation to protect the educational rights of students with disabilities. This law was later amended to become the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is how we know it today. Although the law’s name changed and new provisions have since been added, its overall purpose remains the same; IDEA guarantees educational rights to all students with disabilities and makes it illegal for school districts to refuse to educate a student based on a student’s disability.
How Does IDEA Define “Disability”?
Under IDEA, there are 14 categories under which a student is eligible to receive the protections and services promised in the law. They are:
- Emotional Disturbance
- Hearing Impairment
- Intellectual Disability*
- Orthopedic Impairment
- Specific Learning Disability
- Speech or Language Impairment
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Visual Impairment
- Multiple Disabilities
- Other Health Impairments
* Intellectual disability has also been referred to as “Mental Retardation” (MR) in the past, and this term and its acronym may be used colloquially or in older documentation. It is not, however, a currently accepted practice to refer to individuals with intellectual disabilities as mentally retarded.
The Special Education Process: What to Expect if Your Child Has a Disability
In the beginning, it may seem like there are endless special education acronyms, requirements and tests; however, if you can learn the basic acronyms and understand their meanings, you will find that you will begin to “speak SPED.” SPED, of course, stands for “special education,” and you just learned your first and most important acronym.
In the article titled The Special Education Process Explained, it provides an outline of what to expect through the identification and assessment processes, in IEP meetings and during IEP monitoring. It will define and briefly describe many of the acronyms you will begin to hear, and give you a broad understanding of how the special education process works. It also includes resources that you can use to find more in-depth information about topics within special education.
Know Your Child’s Rights
If you are a newcomer to the world of special education, you may not be aware that you have rights guaranteed to you under the law. No matter your role—parent, teacher, student or administrator—it is important that you understand the laws governing special education so that you can best advocate for your needs, or for the needs of the student.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with special needs are entitled to “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE). This means that your child’s school district must work with you to provide your child with a public education that is as close as possible to the education received by students without disabilities. For more information regarding your child’s rights, and your rights as a parent, please refer to Legal Rights to Services.