Whether you are a parent with a special needs child, or just an interested party wanting to learn more about special education, here is a brief history and introduction into what you will need to know.
Special Education: A History
With the final regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passing in 2011, the current laws protecting children who have disabilities that interfere with their learning are stronger than they have been in decades.
It was only as recently as 1975 that students with disabilities were permitted to be taught in public schools by law. Before the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, students with disabilities were often segregated, denied education, or held back in school. This Act was amended to the current law today, which is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
IDEA guarantees all students with disabilities, from ages 3 to 22, the right to education without discrimination.
Areas of Disability that Qualify for Special Education Services
There are 13 major categories of disability that may qualify a child for Special Education services:
Hard of Hearing, Deaf, Deaf-Blind, Visually Impaired, Speech and Language Impaired, Specific Learning Disability, Multi-Handicapped, Orthopedically Impaired, Mental Retardation, Autism, Emotional Disturbance, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Other Health Impaired.
A disability, however, does not automatically enroll a child into Special Education services, even if the disability falls into one of the above categories. The child’s educational performance must be affected by the disability as well.
A team, consisting of the parents, the child’s current teacher (or a teacher qualified to teach a child of comparable age), and one or more of the following: school psychologist, speech pathologist, remedial reading teacher, or other individuals qualified to conduct assessments of children, will make the determination if the child has a disability that requires Special Education services to assist in learning.
Overview of the Special Education Process
Step 1: Determining need.
In order to enroll a child into special education, your child will first need to be diagnosed. The doctors or experts will then assess your child to determine whether special instruction tailored to your child’s need would assist in his or her education. This evaluation considers the impact of the disability on your child’s ability to progress in a standard education setting.
Step 2: Formally assessing the need.
Once the evaluators decide that your child needs or would benefit from special education, a variety of tests are administered to gain an overview of your child’s current academic performance, strengths, and weaknesses.
Step 3: Individualized Education Program (IEP) and initial meeting.
This step involves creating a specialized learning plan for your child. IDEA requires the school to create a plan no later than 30 days after assessment for a child with special needs. During the first meeting, when the IEP is set, your child’s needs and goals will be discussed.
Step 4: Progress updates and annual meetings.
After the first IEP meeting, you will meet with your child’s educators every year to discuss progress and goals, modifying the IEP as needed.
Knowing Your Child’s Rights
Under IDEA, all students with special needs are entitled to “free and appropriate public education (FAPE).” Your school district is required to work with you in addressing your child’s special needs and in providing an educational environment with content as similar as possible to students without special needs.
If you do not agree with the IEP that has been recommended, it is your right to challenge the IEP or request a mediation. As the parent, however, you will be required to prove that the IEP is inadequate.
Once an IEP has been discussed and agreed upon, school districts have 10 days to provide the necessary support, teachers, and materials for the assisted learning program set for your child.
You also have the right to request a meeting at any time before the annual progress report, and a meeting will have to be held within 30 days of the request.
If your child is falling behind in school due to special needs, a disability, or undiagnosed issues, special education is required by law to be available to address those issues. The assessment process and progress report development takes time—but the school districts are under a strict deadline to ensure that your child gets as close to the same level of education as children who do not have special needs.
If in doubt about the process and/or your rights and your child’s rights, refer to a special education attorney or advocate for assistance.