Volume: 4, Issue: 2


An Overview of Special Education in the United States
Пиерсон, М. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: definitions in special education, 13 categories of disability, prevalence of individuals with disability, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, continuum of placements, educational exchange, RTI, inclusion, universal design for learning.
SYNOPSIS: The author describes the field of special education in the past 20 years in the United States and shows how dramatically it has changed. Recent laws advocating for individuals with disabilities have made a significant impact on their access to education. The authors gives definitions of main terms in Special Education and illustrates them with examples.

Individuals with disabilities have existed since the beginning of time, but services to educate them have not.  In the United States, special education services began at the end of the 18th century for students with sensory impairments.  Early in the 19th century, children who were considered to be “idiots” or “insane” were first given opportunities at schooling.  Today, in the United States, these children are said to have intellectual disabilities and emotional or behavioral disorders.  Children were offered an asylum for protection from the world around them.  Now children with disabilities in the United States are given full educational services regardless of the disability and many are fully included in general education classrooms and schools.

Definitions in Special Education

According to Huefner (2006), the term special education means specially designed instruction that meets the unusual needs of an exceptional student and that might require specific materials, techniques, interventions and/or equipment.  General education cannot replace special education as special education is precisely controlled by many factors including intensity, pacing of instruction, structure, reinforcement, teacher pupil ratio, curriculum, and assessment (Kaufman & Landrum, 2007).    

The 13 categories of disability according to Hallahan, Kauffman, and Pullen (2012) are the following: 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 and visual impairment.  Definitions are as follows:

  • Autism – means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
  • Deaf-Blindness – means simultaneous hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.
  • Deafness – means a hearing impairment so severe that a child is impaired in processing linguistically information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
  • Emotional Disturbance – means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:
    • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors
    • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers
    • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
    • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
    • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
  • Hearing Impairment – means an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance, but is not included under the definition of “deafness”.
  • Intellectual Disability – means significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
  • Multiple Disabilities – means concomitant impairments (such as intellectual disability-blindness, intellectual disability-orthopedic impairment), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments.
  • Orthopedic Impairment – means a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.  The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease, and impairments from other causes.
  • Other Health Impairment – means having limited strength, vitality, or alertness which adversely affects a child’s educational performance which is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome.
  • Specific Learning Disability – means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.  The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.  The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
  • Speech or Language Impairment – means a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury – means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.  The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech.
  • Visual Impairment Including Blindness – means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance.  The term includes both partial sight and blindness.

Prevalence of Individuals with Disabilities

The percentage of the population that has a disability is referred to as prevalence.  In the United States, estimating the prevalence of specific disabilities is difficult and often a source of controversy due to several factors.  Varying and vague definitions, rates of identification, and the roles of the school in the identification all affect the accuracy of the prevalence data.  The best estimates are as follows:  (1) 10 out of every 100 students in the United States receive special education services, (2) 2.3% of the population is identified as having an intellectual disability, and (3) the identification of individuals with autism or autism spectrum disorder continues to rise.

The following table details the percentage of special education enrollment in 2010 by disability category in the state of California.









Emotional Disturbance


Hard of Hearing


Learning Disability


Mental Retardation


Multiple Disability


Orthopedic Impairment


Other Health Impairment


Speech or Language Impairment


Traumatic Brain Injury


Visual Impairment


The Intent of Special Education Law

The progress in meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities is directly related to laws requiring states to include students with disabilities in the public education system (Bateman, 2011).  The landmark federal law for educating children with disabilities passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, commonly known as PL 94-142.  This law was eventually amended to become the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, 1997, and 2004. 

Major provisions of IDEA include the following (Hallahan, Kauffman, & Pullen, 2012):

  • Identification – extensive efforts to screen and identify all children and youths with disabilities
  • Free, appropriate public education – every student with a disability has an appropriate public education at no cost to the parents or guardians
  • Due process – the student’s and parents’ rights to information and informed consent before the student is evaluated, labeled, or placed, and the right to an impartial due process hearing if they disagree with the school’s decisions
  • Parent/guardian surrogate consultation – the student’s parents or guardians are consulted about the student’s evaluation and placement and the educational plan
  • Least restrictive environment – the student is educated in the least restrictive environment consistent with his or her educational needs and as much as possible with students without disabilities
  • Individualized education program – this plan includes levels of functioning, long-term goals, extent to which the student will not participate in the general education classroom and curriculum, services to be provided, plans for initiating and evaluating services, and needed transition services
  • Nondiscriminatory evaluation – the student is evaluated in all areas of disability and in a way that is not biased by this language or cultural characteristics or disabilities by a multidisciplinary team and no single evaluation procedure may be used as the sole criterion for placement or planning
  • Confidentiality – the results of evaluation and placement are kept confidential, though the student’s parents and guardians may have access to the records
  • Personnel development – training for teachers and other professional personnel including inservice training for general education teachers, in meeting the needs of students with disabilities

The key components addressed most frequently in American education are the individualized education plan and least restrictive environment.

Continuum of Placements

The education of students with disabilities depends on two factors:  (1) how and how much the student differs from typical students and (2) what resources are available in the school and community (Hallahan, Kauffman, & Pullen, 2012).  The continuum of placements from the least separate or least specialized to the most separate or most specialized is as follows:

General Education Class Only

General Education Class with Consultation or Co-Teaching

Itinerant Teacher

Resource Teacher

Self-Contained Special Class

Special Day School

Homebound or Hospital Instruction

Residential School


Recent Progress of Special Education in the United States

Response to Intervention

Identifying individuals as having learning disabilities was previously determined by an intelligence test which would be used to examine the discrepancy between the current achievement of the learner and the potential achievement.  Response to Intervention (RTI) has now replaced this method of identification of learning disabilities.  RTI refers to a student’s change (or lack of change) in academic performance or behavior as a result of instruction (Duhon, Messmer, Atkins, Greguson, & Olinger, 2009).  Typically, the RTI model is a three-tiered intervention model.  In the first tier, all students are screened while receiving evidence-based best practices.  Any student who is determined to be at risk for school failure will be monitored weekly and screened at least every quarter.  Those unresponsive to the instruction in the first tier will move onto the second tier where greater intensity of instruction and intervention in small groups are utilized.  Students remain in the general education setting with frequent monitoring.  Students who continue to be at risk for school failure are reviewed by a multidisciplinary team.  The team conducts a full evaluation and writes an individualized education plan that will be used in tier three.  In tier three, students will receive the most intensive intervention by special education professionals with frequent progress monitoring.


Inclusion of students with disabilities educated with their typical peers in the same schools and classrooms has increased in recent years.  While many educators strongly advocate for a variety of placement options, overall beliefs are that students with disabilities should be fully included with appropriate and comprehensive supports.  One avenue of supporting students with disabilities is co-teaching.  Both a general education and special education teacher share a classroom and support all students in the class.  The most common form of co-teaching is when one teacher instructs and the second teacher assists.  Although the level of success depends on the co-teaching team, co-teaching has become more prevalent in recent years.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Making learning accessible for all learners is the core principle of UDL.  More students can be included in instruction if teachers modify materials, modes of communication, and how students can respond to curriculum.  Teacher education programs focus on training teachers to best meet the needs of all students in their general education classrooms.


Special education in the United States has changed dramatically in the past 20 years.  Laws and legislation advocating for individuals with disabilities has made a significant impact on education and access to education.  Increasing numbers of individuals with disabilities in general education classrooms has changed the likelihood that more people will accept individuals with disabilities in society in general.  When people are educated together, they are more likely to be friends and have a greater level of comfort about the differences.


  • Bateman, B.D.  (2011).  Individual education programs for children with disabilities.  In J.M. Kauffman & D. P. Hallahan (Eds.), Handbook of special education.  New York:  Routledge.
  • Duhon, G.J., Messmer, E.M., Atkins, M.E., Greguson, L.A., & Olinger, E.S.  (2009). Quantifying intervention intensity:  A systematic approach to evaluating student response to increasing intervention frequency.  Journal of Behavioral Education, 18, 101-118.
  • Hallahan, D.P, Kauffman, J.M., & Pullen, P.C.  (2012).  Exceptional learners:  An introduction to special education (12th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson.
  • Huefner, D.S.  (2006).  Getting comfortable with special education law:  A framework for working with children with disabilities (2nd ed.).  Norwood, MA:  Christopher Gordon.
  • Kaufman, J.M., & Landrum, T.J.  (2007).  Educational service interventions and reforms.  In J.W.  Jacobson, J.A. Mulick, & J. Rojahn (Eds.), Handbook of intellectual and developmental disabilities (pp. 173-188).  New York:  Springer.


1 Melinda R. Pierson, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Special Education, California State University, Fullerton, CA, USA.

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