Special Education in the United States 2018

by Elaine Garner

Before 1961, parents of children with disabilities in the United States had no public education options and usually deterred to homeschooling or paying for expensive private school programs.

In the 1960s, parents banned together to eventually push through policies for government backed education programs. The most important of these policies, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) coupled with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, now give children between the ages of 3 and 21 access to free education programs that assist students in their unique needs.

The IDEA covers the 13 types of disabilities listed below:

  • Autism

  • Deaf-Blindness

  • Deafness

  • Developmental Delay

  • Emotional Disturbance

  • Hearing Impairment

  • Mental Retardation

  • Multiple Disabilities

  • Orthopedic Impairment

  • Other Health Impairment

  • Specific Learning Disability

  • Speech or Language Impairment

  • Traumatic Brain Injury

  • Visual Impairment Including Blindness

Issues in Special Education Today

The percentage accounting for the number of students being served in these programs has hovered at around 13% in recent years. However, much dissension exists about the various approaches and issues with programs today, including disagreements about placement, concerning the student, as well as training, concerning the teacher.

Under the IDEA, students are individually evaluated and subsequently placed in one of six types of classroom settings according to their results. Proponents of this approach argue that this allows for each child’s unique needs to be met.

However,  a more recent trend argues for every students’ placement in general-education classrooms, where students with disabilities learn beside those without disabilities. Some studies have shown this approach to be extremely beneficial academically and otherwise, especially for students with mild to moderate disabilities. These benefits include decreases in student absences, an increase in student engagement and social interaction, and overall better outcomes in post-secondary outcomes.

Unfortunately, many schools struggle with the implementation of this educational setting design, and therefore lose out on the benefits. General-education classrooms, in their most erroneous form, can leave students’ needs unmet and lead to worse outcomes.

Whether the IDEA approach of need-specific placement persists or if it is usurped by the rising trend of inclusive classrooms,  it is important to recognize and combat the flaws of each approach.

Using technology to offset the generalization that general-education classrooms impose can allow students with disabilities to learn alongside their classmates and receive customized materials that meet their unique needs. At the same time, technology can give teachers the tools they need to follow through with the more specialized IDEA approach. New technologies are able to help special needs teachers teach students in new ways, track assessment results, and plan Individual Education Programs (IEPs).


Of course, implementing these styles of classroom requires educational supports like teachers trained in special education and assistants with disability-specific backgrounds. Unfortunately, this is the grounds of another issue in special education.

While the shortage of teachers nationwide is very apparent, to say the least, the shortage of special education teachers is devastating. The decrease in enrollments of teachers into special education training programs coupled with an augmenting turnover rate has left schools understaffed and children under-served.

49 of 50 states report a shortage in special education instructors

In response to the shortage of staff, schools have lowered their threshold for credentials needed to fill these empty spots. This has led to a rise in short term training programs for educators to acquire conditional licensure, which act as alternatives to four year degrees. Although somewhat helpful, these programs can leave teachers feeling inadequately prepared and add to the high rate of exit from the profession.

Again looking to technology as a solution, districts have integrated online programs with customized materials into the classroom, hoping to meet students’ needs. These online programs allow flexibility in curriculum and unprecedented customization for students’ unique needs, and continue to bring new opportunities for students with disabilities to the classroom.

As of 1999, only 20% of all U.S. teachers felt adequately trained to use and integrate technology into their teaching.

Unfortunately, many reports have emerged from teachers placed in charge of these types of classrooms who vocalize their struggle to adapt to this new strategy. Declaring that the programs’ implementation has been accompanied with a noticeable lack of training programs and resources made available to educators, forcing teachers to learn on the job through trial-and-error.

As a parent or a teacher, it can be very frustrating to be on the front-end of this issue and see the negative effects of the lack of training educators receive on children with special needs.

To fully take advantage of today’s technology solutions and see students with disabilities thrive, districts should ensure that the programs they are implementing provide accessible resources or and training programs to teachers.


As of 2018, many options are available for districts considering different classroom styles and technologies to accompany them. For example, virtual schools, blended learning, and live streaming teachers all integrate technology into the classroom environment. Notably, technology cannot be used to its full potential without teachers receiving proper training; most importantly, technology is best utilized when its use is accompanied by an experienced licensed instructor. When teacher shortages exist, programs who live stream teachers and employ in-class assistants act as best-case-scenarios.

Ultimately, when considering technology used in special education, the horizons are bright. The unparalleled customization that online programs allow give way to many unforeseen opportunities for students with disabilities, and with the proper implementation, many children will be able to take on new challenges and developments.


  1. http://www.ldonline.org/article/27971/

  2. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/current_tables.asp

  3. https://degree.astate.edu/articles/k-12-education/the-history-of-special-education-in-the-u-s.aspx

  4. http://frontandcentral.com/k-12-trends/technology-changing-special-education-classroom/

  5. https://specialedshortages.org/about-the-shortage/

  6. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/03/how-teacher-training-hinders-special-needs-students/518286/

  7. http://blog.edmentum.com/five-trending-issues-special-education

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