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Labeling and Eligibility for Special Education

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Labeling is required to be included for special education. Under current law, to receive special education services, a child must be identified as having a disability (i.e., labeled) and, in most cases, must be further classified into one of that state’s categories, such as mental retardation or learning disabilities. In practice, therefore, a student becomes eligible for special education and related services because of membership in a given category. (IDEA allows children ages 3 to 9 to be identified as developmentally delayed and receive special education services without the use of a specific disability label.)

Some educators believe that the labels used to identify and classify exceptional children today stigmatize them and serve to deny them opportunities in the mainstream (e.g., Danforth & Rhodes, 1997; Kliewer & Biklen, 1996; Reschly, 1996). Others argue that a workable system of classifying exceptional children (or their exceptional learning needs) is a prerequisite to providing needed special educational services (e.g., Kauffman, 1999; MacMillan, Gresham, Bocian, & Lambros, 1998) and that reducing the stigma associated with disability requires honest and open recognition of the condition and that using more “pleasant” terms minimizes and devalues the individual’s situation and need for supports.

The stigma of cancer has not abated because people tried to cloak it with euphemisms, new terms considered more upbeat and less offensive. Imagine our reaction if someone were to say, “We no longer use the word cancer; now we use less unpleasant terms, such as prolific cells or challenging tissue.” The stigma of cancer has abated because people were encouraged to confront it for what it is, treat it, and prevent it. Cancer of any type is not nice, not desirable, not anything we would wish for someone we love, but something to be acknowledged and treated. We want people who don’t have it to avoid it if they can, even as we want our society to be accepting and supportive of those who have it. We should work for a similar understanding and response to disability—a realistic, no-nonsense depiction of what it is and a loving, supportive attitude toward those who have disabilities. (Kauffman, 2003, p. 196)

Classification is a complex issue involving emotional, political, and ethical considerations in addition to scientific, fiscal, and educational interests (Luckasson & Reeve, 2001). As with most complex issues, there are valid perspectives on both sides of the labeling question. The reasons most often cited for and against the classification and labeling of exceptional children are the following: 

Possible Benefits of Labeling

  • Labeling recognizes meaningful differences in learning or behavior and is a first and necessary step in responding responsibly to those differences. As Kauffman (1999) points out, “Although universal interventions that apply equally to all, . . . can be implemented without labels and risk of stigma, no other interventions are possible without labels. Either all students are treated the same or some are treated differently. Any student who is treated differently is inevitably labeled. . . . When we are unwilling for whatever reason to say that a person has a problem, we are helpless to prevent it. . . . Labeling a problem clearly is the first step in dealing with it productively”.
  • Labeling may lead to a protective response in which children are more accepting of the atypical behavior of a peer with disabilities than they would be of a child without disabilities who emitted that same behavior. (A protective response—whether by peers, parents, or teachers—toward a child with a disability can be a disadvantage if it creates learned helplessness and diminishes the child’s chances to develop independence [Weisz, Bromfield, Vines, & Weiss, 1985].)
  • Labeling helps professionals communicate with one another and classify and evaluate research findings.
  • Funding and resources for research and other programs are often based on specific categories of exceptionality.
  • Labels enable disability-specific advocacy groups (e.g., parents of children with autism) to promote specific programs and spur legislative action.
  • Labeling helps make exceptional children’s special needs more visible to policymakers and the public.
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