This reference list is designed to accompany CPIR’s Brief for Parent Centers on Free Appropriate Public Education and the Dear Colleague Letter on FAPE issued by OSEP on November 16, 2015. The online version of the reference list presents one term or acronym at a time. This page focuses on how IDEA defines the term “special education.”
You can use the reference list in staff or board training, to refresh or deepen your understanding of what key terms in IDEA mean, and to find easy-to-read summaries about these terms on CPIR’s site in English and Spanish. (Note: To print out or share the ENTIRE reference list as one Word or PDF file, use the links at the very top of this page.)
Importance of This Key Term | As the OSEP Dear Colleague Letter on FAPE indicates, special education is at the core of how schools address the needs of students with disabilities and support them in achieving the annual goals stated in their IEPs as aligned with the state’s academic content standards. Accordingly, how this term is defined in law and implemented in the real world is extremely important to students, families, schools, and Parent Centers.
Where “special education” is defined in IDEA | IDEA defines “special education” at 34 CFR §300.39, as follows:
§300.39 Special education.
(a) General. (1) Special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including—
(i) Instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and
(ii) Instruction in physical education.
(2) Special education includes each of the following, if the services otherwise meet the requirements of paragraph (a)(1) of this section—
(i) Speech-language pathology services, or any other related service, if the service is considered special education rather than a related service under State standards;
(ii) Travel training; and
(iii) Vocational education.
(b) Individual special education terms defined. The terms in this definition are defined as follows:
(1) At no cost means that all specially-designed instruction is provided without charge, but does not preclude incidental fees that are normally charged to nondisabled students or their parents as a part of the regular education program.
(2) Physical education means—
(i) The development of—
(A) Physical and motor fitness;
(B) Fundamental motor skills and patterns; and
(C) Skills in aquatics, dance, and individual and group games and sports (including intramural and lifetime sports); and
(ii) Includes special physical education, adapted physical education, movement education, and motor development.
(3) Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction—
(i) To address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability; and
(ii) To ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.
(4) Travel training means providing instruction, as appropriate, to children with significant cognitive disabilities, and any other children with disabilities who require this instruction, to enable them to—
(i) Develop an awareness of the environment in which they live; and
(ii) Learn the skills necessary to move effectively and safely from place to place within that environment (e.g., in school, in the home, at work, and in the community).
(5) Vocational education means organized educational programs that are directly related to the preparation of individuals for paid or unpaid employment, or for additional preparation for a career not requiring a baccalaureate or advanced degree.
Unofficial definition of special education in Spanish
Key points about “special education” | When you read the Dear Colleague Letter on FAPE, you’ll notice that there are several points made about the nature of “special education.” These include that:
Special education is instruction that is specially designed to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. The hallmark of special education is that it is individualized for student needs.
Special education is provided at no cost to parents or students.
Special education can be provided in different locations, depending on student needs. IDEA strongly prefers that students receive their special education services in the general education classroom with their nondisabled peers, as you can see by its LRE provisions.
Special education is not a place, however. It’s a set of services, which includes adapting instruction (what’s presented, how it’s presented) to address the unique needs of the child that result from the disability.
Special education isn’t separated from the academic content that students are supposed to learn for their grade. It’s meant to support the learning of that academic content. That’s why IDEA emphasizes that special education needs to ensure that students with disabilities have access to the general curriculum that all students are expected to learn. And that’s why the Dear Colleague Letter on FAPE stresses the importance of aligning a student’s goals in the IEP to the academic content for that student’s enrolled grade.
Materials you can share with families and new staff | For a discussion of how special education is to be implemented in schools in support of individual children with disabilities, consider these materials.
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