In Honor of Special Education

December 2, the 48th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), is officially recognized as Special Education Day. Take time this week to congratulate a special-education student, teacher, or advocate.

While “special education” usually means disability accommodations, everyone is both “special” and “ordinary.” The best education systems are built on these principles:

  1. All children, regardless of abilities or disabilities, deserve equal access to learning opportunities.
  2. All children, regardless of abilities or disabilities, have potential to become effective adults.
  3. All students are challenged to stretch their boundaries and be their own best selves.
  4. All students are encouraged to complete high school, then find their best paths as long-term contributors to society.
  5. Schools are made as inclusive as possible, while ensuring that all individuals can learn according to their gifts and needs.
  6. It is essential to provide “unique educational services to meet the physical, social, and cognitive needs of individuals” whose disabilities present extra challenges. (Quoting from The Caroline School, Easter Seals Greater Houston, where “abilities rather than disabilities dictate each student’s pace and path,” in “an environment conducive to happy and healthy lifelong learners.”)

For public-school students with extra physical, cognitive, and/or social needs, IDEA and other laws guarantee the right to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP is a contract between a school and a qualifying family, outlining specific accommodations plus any training that teachers will need for working with a student.

Tips for Ensuring an Effective IEP

If your child uses an IEP, it’ll include a “school meetings” schedule to keep things up to date. Here are some hints for helping meetings (and other IEP aspects) go smoothly.

  • Be clear on which accommodations are essential vs. optional.
  • Keep a team mindset, emphasizing common goals.
  • Be a good listener, considering other points of view.
  • Remember that learning includes healthy challenges along with accommodations. Don’t underestimate what your child can do, or overestimate the help they’ll need.
  • Encourage your child to contribute their own suggestions to the IEP. Invite them to join you at IEP meetings as soon as they’re ready (usually by middle school), and let them practice self-advocacy and share their ideas. Remember that the ultimate goal of education is growing up and becoming independent.

Tips for Contributing to Special Education

Even if your family doesn’t need IEPs or special education, you can help students and teachers by:

  • Reading books about special education and its goals and needs. (Look especially for books written by persons with disabilities, sharing their experiences.)
  • Suggesting disability books for your local library’s “diversity” collection. Or, buying books for your closest Little Free Library (you can also set up your own Free Library).
  • Watching documentaries, and/or attending workshops, on the value of special education.
  • Volunteering to help at a special-education school, or tutor a special-education student.
  • Sharing what you learn about special education with your peers and social-media network.
  • Always expecting the best of everyone!

Additional resources:

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