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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

Special Education for Students with Disabilities: Analysis and Recommendations
Donna L. Terman Mary B. Larner Carol S. Stevenson Richard E. Behrman

Why Are So Many Students Considered Disabled?

Students are termed "disabled" because they have real, persistent, and substantial individual differences and educational needs that regular education has been unable to accommodate. These individual differences vary widely, from medical conditions such as cerebral palsy, to dyslexia, to pervasive and chronic maladaptive patterns of behavior. Many of these same students will not be considered disabled once they leave school. Nonetheless, their specialized learning needs are intense and legitimate. The public schools face major challenges in addressing those needs effectively.

Today, more than one in ten school children has been evaluated and found to have a disability. Although the types of disability vary widely, a single category, learning disabilities (LD), accounts for half of the disabled school population. The proportion of children identified with learning disabilities has been steadily growing since the inception of the IDEA, although the proportions identified with mental retardation or speech and language disorders have decreased during that same period. These trends are illustrated in this journal issue by Lyon in his Figure 1.

Although the existence of learning disabilities is beyond dispute, the process of identifying students with these disabilities is fraught with complications. Definitions of the disorder are vague and broad, and manifestations of the disorder vary greatly. Even though the student with severe learning disabilities is relatively easy to identify, and it is unlikely that the average student would be misidentified as having a learning disability, there remains a substantial population of students with mild learning disabilities whose needs are difficult to identify and to meet. Even when identified, most students with learning disabilities do not receive expensive services. They may receive no more than an hour a week of small-group tutoring in a resource room, despite the lack of evidence that such minimal intervention is helpful.

Although identifying a student as "disabled" entitles him or her to special education services, a potentially large expense, school districts nationally have identified a larger proportion of their student body each year as having a disability. Many factors contribute to this increase.

First, funding incentives in most states encourage school districts to label students as disabled. Services delivered to students with a "disability" label are likely to be either partly or fully reimbursed by the state, whereas the same services given to students without a recognized disability are not.

Second, as Reschly observes in this journal issue, ongoing pressures for schools to raise their academic standards leave more and more children falling behind. When the teacher is unprepared to simultaneously raise classroom standards and help the slowest students maintain the classroom's faster pace, the slower students are more likely to be referred to special education.

Third, parents and schools increasingly recognize the important long-term impacts of "less apparent" disabilities. Outcomes for students with less apparent disabilities, as a group, are poor. In this issue, Wagner and Blackorby note that 30% of all students with disabilities dropped out of high school, and an additional 8% dropped out before ever reaching high school. Only 30% of students with learning disabilities participated in postsecondary education, as compared with 68% of youth in the general population. The young women with disabilities were more likely than their nondisabled peers to become unmarried parents: among single women with disabilities, one in five had a child within three to five years after high school, compared with 12% of single women in the general population.15

It is also true that some mildly disabled students are able to make progress with interventions of sufficient intensity and duration. Some interventions do work well for some mildly disabled students, though none work well for all students.10