Special Education in the United States

Special education programs in the United States were made mandatory in 1975 when the United States Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in response to discriminatory treatment by public educational agencies against students with disabilities. The EHA was later modified to strengthen protections to people with disabilities and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The federal laws require states to provide special education consistent with federal standards as a condition of receiving federal funds.

IDEA entitles every student to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). To ensure a FAPE, a team of professionals from the local educational agency meet with the student's parents to identify the student's unique educational needs, to develop annual goals for the student, and to determine the placement, program modification, testing accommodations, counseling, and other special services that the student needs. Parents become part of the multidisciplinary team, along with the local educational agency professionals, and collaborate with team members to make decisions on educational placement. These choices are recorded in a written Individualized Education Program (IEP). The school is required to develop and implement an IEP that meets the standards of federal and state educational agencies. Parents have the option of refusing Special Education services for their child.

Under IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to receive special educational services through their local school district from age 3 to age 18 or 21. To receive special education services, a student must demonstrate a disability in one of 13 specific categories, including autism, developmental disability, specific learning disability, intellectual impairment, emotional and/or behavioral disability, speech and language disability, deaf-blind, visual impairment, hearing impairment, orthopedic or physical impairment, other health impaired (including attention deficit disorder), multiple disabilities and traumatic brain injury. Depending on the students' individual needs, they may be included, mainstreamed, or placed in a special school, and/or may receive many specialized services in a resource room or self-contained classroom. In addition to academic goals, the goals documented in the IEP may address self-care, social skills, physical, speech, and vocational training. The program placement is an integral part of the process, and typically takes place during the IEP meeting.

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