There are many students who have special learning needs and these are addressed through special education (SPED). The range of SPED supports varies based on need and local laws. Each country, state, or educational jurisdiction has different policies, rules, regulations, and legislation that govern what special education means and looks like.

What Is Special Education?
In the US, the governing federal law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under this act, special education is defined as:

“Specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.”

Students qualifying for special education services have needs that often require support that goes beyond what is usually offered or received in the regular school/classroom setting. Special education is in place to ensure that all students’ educational needs are met. This means that additional services, support, programs, specialized placements, or environments are supplied when necessary and at no cost to the parents.

The 13 Categories Under IDEA

Typically, the types of exceptionalities/disabilities that fall under special education are clearly identified in the jurisdiction’s law. Special education is for students with disabilities, which are defined under IDEA as follows:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment

The goal of special education is to ensure that students who have any of these disabilities can take part in education along with students without disabilities and can access the curriculum whenever and as much as possible. Ideally, all students would have equitable access to education in order to reach their potential.

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