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What You Need to Know about Special Education

  • Wesley Sharpe, EdD Author, the ABCs of School Success
  • 2008 7 Jul
  • COMMENTS
What You Need to Know about Special Education
 

If you have a child with special needs, one word you will hear regarding his education is “inclusion.” Special education changed with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1973 and its 1997 amendments. This landmark legislation moved children with special needs from segregated classrooms into regular classrooms.

“The problem with segregated special education is that children will not learn to live in a non-disabled world. Kids in a segregated class will think that emotionally disturbed is the normal thing,” said Art Shapiro, Kean University professor of special education, in the article “Special Education Inclusion: Making It Work.”1

To make the law work, schools are required to have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each special needs kid. Each child’s IEP includes an educational plan designed to meet his or her unique needs; it must be a plan that can be carried out in the regular classroom. As a result, many school districts’ special education children have moved from segregated classrooms into regular classrooms.

Eligibility for Special Education

Federal law mandates that every child will receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. This means that children with special needs have the right to receive special services or accommodations through the public schools. However, eligibility criteria and the procedures for implementing federal laws vary from state to state.

11 Qualifying Conditions

A child with any of the following disabilities qualifies for special education placement with related services.

1. Orthopedic disabilities. Severe orthopedic impairments or irregularities caused by diseases such as poliomyelitis or cerebral palsy; bone tuberculosis or amputations; or fractures or burns that cause tightening of a muscle, a tendon, or the skin resulting in deformity.

2. Cognitive disabilities. Low intellectual functioning in a child’s early development plus defects of adaptive behavior.

3. Speech or language impairments. Communication difficulties that include receptive or expressive language skills; they may include stuttering and language difficulties involving structure, content, and processing skills.

4. Traumatic brain injuries. Head injuries resulting in impairment in cognition, speech and language, memory, attention reasoning, abstract reasoning, and more.

5. Other health impairments. Limited strength, vitality, or alertness due to chronic or acute health problems including a heart condition, tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, asthma, sickle-cell anemia, hemophilia, and epilepsy.

6. Significant developmental delays. Significant delayed cognitive, communication, social-emotional, or adaptive development experiences by children three to five years old.

7. Learning disabilities. Average or above average intellectual ability but unique learning problems that interfere with the ability to read write, spell, or learn arithmetic skills.

8. Hearing impairments. Hearing loss that prevents successful functioning in an educational program without specialized instruction, additional support services, and guidance.

9. Autism. A developmental disability that affects a child’s social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication; it is often evident before age three and adversely affects learning and educational performance.

10. Emotional disturbances. Social, emotional, or behavioral functioning that significantly interferes with the total educational program and development; the condition must be severe, chronic, and observable at school.

11. Visual impairments. Impairments, determined by an ophthalmologist, that are severe enough to prevent successful functioning in an educational program without guidance and accommodation.2

Your Child’s Educational Rights

All parents should be familiar with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It requires that schools do not discriminate against disabled children and do provide them with reasonable adjustments. It covers all private or public programs or activities that receive federal assistance. Under Section 504, any person who has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity is considered disabled. Learning and social development are included under the list of major life activities. Usually these children’s disabilities are less severe or do not fit with the IDEA criteria.

7 Reasonable Adjustments for a Disabled Child in a Regular Classroom

1. Untimed tests

2. Seat in the front of the class

3. Modified homework

4. Provision of the necessary services (speech, reading, psychological)

5. An amplifier on a hard-of-hearing child’s desk

6. A clean change of clothes

7. An interpreter for non-English-speaking children

14 Rights of Parents Who Have Children with Special Needs

1. You must be fully informed. The school must inform you about all of the rights provided to you and your child under the law.

2. You have the right to a free, appropriate public school education. This means that your disabled child’s education will be at no cost to you, and it will meet your child’s special needs.

3. You must be notified if the school wishes to evaluate your child. Your permission is required for all special education services or changes in his or her placement.

4. You may request an evaluation. If you think your child needs special education or related services, take the following steps:

         a. Meet with your child’s teacher to share your concerns and request an evaluation by the school’s child-study team.

         b. Request evaluations and services in writing; date the copy.

         c. Always keep a copy for your records, including teacher observations, notes, and letters between home and school.

         d. Request independent professional evaluations (psychological, educational, speech, medical).

5. You must give your informed consent. You must understand and agree in writing to the evaluation and educational program suggested for your child. You may withdraw your consent at any time.

6. You may obtain an independent evaluation. If you disagree with the outcome of the school’s evaluation, you may request an independent evaluation.

7. You have the right to appeal the conclusions and determination of the school’s evaluation team. The school is required to provide you with information about how to make an appeal.

8. You may request a reevaluation. Your child’s educational program must be reviewed at least once during each calendar year, and the school must reevaluate your child at least every three years. However, if you think your child’s current educational placement is no longer appropriate, ask for a reevaluation.

9. You may have your child tested in the language he or she knows best. If English is a second language for your child, request that all evaluations be completed in his or her native language.

10. You may review all of your child’s records and obtain free copies of these records. If the information in your child’s records is inaccurate, misleading, or violates the privacy or other rights of your child, you may ask that the information be changed. If the school refuses your request, you have the right to a hearing, and if that demand is refused, you may file a complaint with your state educational agency.

11. You may participate in the development of your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). If the child is younger than four years old, an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) is developed. The school must make every possible effort to notify you of the IEP or IFSP meeting and to arrange the meeting at a time and place that is convenient for both you and the school. You may participate in the decisions including your child’s placement.

12. You may have your child educated in the least restrictive school setting possible. The school should make every effort to develop an educational program that will provide your child with the services and supports needed in order to be taught with children who do not have disabilities.

13. You may request a due process hearing or voluntary mediation to resolve differences with the school that can’t be resolved informally. Make your request in writing, date your request, and keep a copy for your records.

14. You should be kept informed about your child’s progress at least as often as parents of children who do not have disabilities.3

Always Be Your Child’s Advocate

Children with special needs are guaranteed rights to services in school under federal and state laws. Parents should always speak for their child. The process, however, can be confusing and intimidating for parents. Here are five tips for advocating for your child.

1. Don’t hesitate to take the necessary steps to make sure your child receives appropriate services.

2. Request copies of the school district’s Section 504 plan. This is especially important when a school district refuses services.

3. If the school district does not respond to your request, you can contact a regional office of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for assistance.

4. If the school district refuses services under the IDEA or Section 504 or both, challenge this decision through a due process hearing.

5. You may also need to retain your own attorney if you decide to appeal a school’s decision.

Excerpted from The ABC's of School Success by Wesley Sharpe, EdD; copyright 2008 Wesley Sharpe. Reprinted by permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.


Wesley Sharpe, (EdD, University of the Pacific) has been a school psychologist for over 30 years. He has authored several books including, Growing Creative Kids and has written for various parenting and educational print and online publications. He and his wife live in California.