How does the special education system work in the United States?

Every year, millions of children in this country with disabilities or other difficulties receive special services at school, designed with their unique needs in mind. These services are part of the special education system. The children that receive these services confront difficulties at school such as problems with staying focused or their behavior, as well as difficulties with reading, comprehension, or writing.

Sometimes these difficulties can be attributed to special needs, such as a learning or physical disability, emotional trouble, or something else. If this it the case, children with special needs have the right to receive special education or support from the public school system.

What is special education?

Special education is instruction designed to meet the individual needs of children with disabilities. This is done at no cost to the parents. Special education may include individualized instruction in the classroom, at home, in hosptials or medical instutions, or in other environments.

Every child that participates in special education receives instruction designed:

  • to meet their individual needs (that result from having a disability).
  • to help the child learn the information and skills that other children at the school are learning.1

The educational system in the United States may be different than that of your country of origin. Children who have a disability that affects their education, such as a learning disability that makes it difficult for them to read, comprehend, or write, can receive special education that consists of instruction and individualized help to support the learning of the child. Students with disabilities are protected by federal laws that assure they will receive a free and appropriate public education; it is the obligation of public schools to give students this special help. Two of the most important laws are:

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):
    The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law that authorizes special education for children with disabilities in the United States. It also authorizes early intervention services of states offer to infants and preschoolers with disabilities. This law has been amended many times over the years. The most recent amendments were approved by Congress in December of 2004.
  • Section 504:
    Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that prohibits all programs and activities, whether they be public or private, that receive federal funds from discriminating based on disabilities. This law applies to all public school districts. Under 504, a person with a disability is a person with a physical or mental impediment that substantially limits one or more principal life activities, has a record of that limitation, or may be considered to have that limitation. Section 504 compliance falls under the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education (OCR).

Who is eligible for special education?

Certain children with disabilities are eligible to receive special education and related services. IDEA offers a definition for a "child with a disability," and the law lists 13 different categories of disabilities under which children can be eligible to receive special education and related services. These categories are:

  • 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 Blindness2

Parent Participation

It is the obligation of public schools to offer students with special needs the help they need, but it is also important that parents get involved and advocate for their children. In fact, it is your right, and schools expect you to do so. The relationship that you have with the school can make a tremendous different in your child's education. For your participation to be effective, you should be well-informed about your rights and the process of special education.

There are occasions in which parents believe that they do not have the same rights as other parents because they are from other countries, do not speak English, or have not finalized their immigrant status. Within the educational system of the U.S., all parents, regardless of the language they speak, immigration status, or origin, has the right to actively participate in the educational process of their children. In addition:

  • Schools must inform you of your rights as a parent in a way that is easy for you to understand.
  • If you don't speak English or only understand a little bit, the school should make every reasonable effort so that an interpreter is present at school meetings.
  • You have the right that your child's file remain confidential.
  • Schools must obtain your written consent to perform evaluations of your child to determine whether he has a disability or not.
  • You have the right to participate as a member of a team that will determine your child's special needs, the location of your child's instruction, and the special education services that the school will provide.
  • You have the right to disagree with decisions made by the school, or actions taken by the school related to eligibility, environment or the classroom of your child, and to initiate a variety of steps to resolve the discrepancy.

Learn more!

For more information about special education, please visit the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities website.

For more information about learning disabilities, please visit our sister site, LDOnLine.


1Frequently Asked Questions from Parents About Special Education Services. National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY). 2001. Translated from Spanish.

2NICHCY. 2001.


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I want to start a special school for children with mental retardation in india .can you send IEP and checklist formats of preschool ,school age and also prevocational / vocational childrens

[email protected]


ramakrishna tankashala

i think that its a geat program

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