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Journal Issue: Children with Disabilities Volume 22 Number 1 Spring 2012

Disability and the Education System
Laudan Aron Pamela Loprest


It is difficult to overstate the importance of the nation's education system for children with disabilities and their families. Education is important for all children, of course, but for those with disabilities or special needs it can mean the difference between a socially fulfilling, intellectually stimulating, and economically productive life and a future with few of these qualities. Education also has the potential to affect children's health by influencing their ability to advocate for themselves, manage chronic health conditions, and navigate complex medical, insurance, and social service systems during childhood and later in life.

An early childhood or preschool program or a child's elementary school is often the first regular contact a family has with a professional child-serving system. While children with obvious congenital, physical, or sensory disabilities are likely to have been identified and served within the health care system before starting school, many disabilities (particularly learning disabilities and behavioral disorders) and developmental delays are not identified or may not emerge before a child begins school. Many disabilities, moreover, are actually manifestations of physical or mental limitations within specific social or environmental contexts, and of the behavioral or performance expectations of socially defined roles within those contexts. In these cases, school represents a new and changing context within the life of a child, so new approaches and accommodations may be needed even for children whose conditions and limitations have been long known.

In this article, we offer a brief history of the legal underpinnings of the nation's special education system, explaining how and why the existing system has evolved as it has. We highlight the dual nature of the law, which both defines civil rights for a class of protected persons and establishes a funding stream for programs and services to support these persons.

We then present basic information profiling special education students in the United States and the types of services and accommodations they receive. These services in principle are wide ranging, from providing early intervention to coordinating care to helping students transition from high school to postsecondary education or employment and training. The critical importance of early identification and prevention of childhood disabilities is now widely established. Intervening early and effectively can redirect the health and educational trajectory of many children with disabilities, especially those with specific learning disabilities, and can also prevent the onset of secondary disabilities. In addition to offering regular educational activities and any special educational services and interventions a child with a disability may need, schools are settings where a variety of other child- and family-centered services can be delivered and coordinated.1 These services can be critical for children with disabilities and their families, especially for those who are poor, have limited English skills, or are precariously housed. Schools also have a particularly important role to play in helping students (and teens who leave school) transition successfully to postsecondary education and job training, employment, and independent living in adulthood. These transition points in the lives of children are important and can be especially challenging for young people with disabilities and their families.2

The discussion then turns to a review of the costs of special education (and related funding issues) and the educational outcomes that children with disabilities are achieving. These two aspects of the system often raise the greatest concerns: not only is the system expensive and growing more so over time, but a substantial gap in educational outcomes remains between children with disabilities and other children. A final section discusses some implications for practice and policy.