Special Education

What is Special Education?

Special Education is the term used to describe services and supports schools implement to ensure that children with disabilities have access to the regular education curriculum at their school and can, to the extent possible, participate in school activities, classes, and events.
On this page we will define and explain the terms, regulations, and laws surrounding Special Education and the services it provides.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that guarantees the right of public school students to attend school and access the regular education curriculum. IDEA was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1975 and was originally called the "Education of All Handicapped Children Act." Congress has amended and renamed the law several times (IDEA 2004, aka IDEIA). IDEA guarantees children with disabilities access to a free appropriate public education (also called FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
IDEA defines special education as specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parent, that meets the unique needs of a child with a disability, including classroom instruction, physical education instruction, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and other institutions.
Special Education includes related services such as transportation and development, corrective, and other supportive services that may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education including identification and assessment of disabling conditions in children. Supportive services include assistive technology, speech-language pathology, audiology, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation and therapeutic recreation, social work, counseling and rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services, except that such medical services shall be for diagnostic and evaluation purposes only.
Special Education also includes vocational education if it consists of specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parent, that meets the unique needs of a child with a disability.
Part B of IDEA 2004 outlines the Special Education process which is available to eligible students with disabilities, age 3 through graduation, or until age 22, including Special Education preschool which serves children with disabilities ages 3 to 5.
IDEA does not generally apply to private schools. It guarantees children the right to a public education. However, IDEA does require school districts to identify all children with disabilities, regardless of whether they attend public or private schools. There may be rare situations when a public school district will pay for a child to attend a private school because it cannot provide FAPE in its public schools. IDEA, however, does apply to all public charter schools.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is defined as follows:
  • At no cost to parents; the school district pays for the child’s schooling
  • Includes all students, no matter their disability
  • Available for students no matter where they live
  • Available through the local public school
  • Not usually available if the student goes to a private school
  • Available regardless of whether the child is failing or is advancing from grade to grade
  • Students can receive help in classes like reading, writing, and math - any subjects available to nondisabled students.
  • Includes help with social skills or behavior intervention plans that the child needs to be able to learn in school.
  • Provides services like speech, physical therapy, or counseling. (These are called "related services.”)

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

Least restrictive environment (LRE) describes the setting in which the student will learn. IDEA assumes that students with disabilities will be in a regular classroom, with their typical peers, whenever possible. If students need extra help or services to remain in the regular classroom, those services must be provided. Only if a student cannot make educational progress in a regular classroom, even with help, should a student be placed in a separate classroom or facility. A team of people, who have special expertise and knowledge about the student's needs, including the student’s parents and the student, decides the student's placement when they write the Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
One of your rights is to be informed (in writing, in your native language) of the procedural safeguards (legal rights) that are available to you. Copies of these rights must be given to you by the school at certain points in the process.
The following diagram provides a summary of the Special Education Process:

Special Education Process


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Center for Parent Information and Resources (DOE)
A large resource library related to children with disabilities. Parent Centers in every state provide training to parents of children with disabilities and provide information about local conferences, support groups, and finding schools and other local services; Department of Education, Office of Special Education.

IDEA Parent Guide (National Center for Learning Disabilities) (PDF Document 1.1 MB)
A comprehensive guide for parents on rights and responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004). Helps parents determine if their child might be eligible for services, what kind of services to expect, how to request an evaluation, how to develop a plan for services, and what their legal rights are.

Transition Handbook: From 'No' Where to 'Know' Where (PDF Document 1.1 MB)
This handbook, from the Utah Parent Center, is designed for parents of children with disabilities to help them be active participants in developing transition goals and activities as their children transition to adulthood and includes information about steps to transition, graduation, laws, roles of players, transition planning, employment, training, independent living, timelines, advocacy, SSI, health care, guardianship, estate planning, and a directory of related Utah organizations.

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition
Provides information about transition during high school and to opportunities after high school including jobs, vocational education, and college. Provides links to contacts in each state for 1) State Transition Contact, 2) Regional Resource Center Contact, 3) State Director of Special Education, 4) Part B Contact, and 5) State Director or Vocational Rehabilitation.

NIMAS, IDEA regulation for access to instructional materials
The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) is a technical standard that curriculum publishers began using in 2006, designed to make it easier and faster to obtain accessible instructional materials in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


Early Childhood Education/Preschool

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Educational Advocacy

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School Districts

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Schools for Children with Autism

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Schools for the Deaf & Blind

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Special Needs Schools, Other

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For other services related to this condition, browse our Services categories or search our database.


Author: Gina Pola-Money - 9/2013
Reviewing Authors: Shena McAuliffe, MFA - 9/2013
Tina Persels - 9/2013
Content Last Updated: 9/2013