What is Special Education?

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

Special education is a complex enterprise that can be defined and evaluated from many perspectives. One may, for example, view special education as a legislatively governed enterprise whose practitioners are concerned about issues such as due process procedures for informing parents about their right to participate in decisions about their children’s education programs and the extent to which all of the school district’s IEPs include each component as required by IDEA. From a purely administrative point of view, special education can be seen as the part of a school system’s operation that requires certain teacher-pupil ratios in the classroom and uses special formulas to determine levels of funding for related-services personnel. And from a sociopolitical perspective, special education can be seen as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, a demonstration of society’s changing attitudes about people with disabilities. Each of these perspectives has some validity, and each has and continues to play an important role in defining what special education is and how it is practiced. None of these views, however, reveals the fundamental purpose or essence of special education as instructionally based intervention.

Special Education As Intervention

Special education is, first of all, purposeful intervention designed to prevent, eliminate, and/or overcome the obstacles that might keep an individual with disabilities from learning and from full and active participation in school and society. There are three basic types of intervention: preventive, remedial, and compensatory.

Preventive Intervention.  Preventive intervention is designed to keep potential or minor problems from becoming a disability. Preventive intervention includes actions that stop an event from happening and those that reduce a problem or condition that has already been identified. Prevention can occur at three levels (Simeonsson, 1994):

  • Primary prevention is designed to reduce the number of new cases (incidence) of a problem; it consists of efforts to eliminate or counteract risk factors so that a disability is never acquired. Primary prevention efforts are aimed at all relevant persons. For example, in a schoolwide program to prevent behavior disorders, school- and classroom-wide systems of positive behavior support would be provided for all students, staff, and settings (Sugai & Horner, 2005).
  • Secondary prevention is aimed at reducing the number existing cases (prevalence) of an already identified problem or condition or eliminating the effects of existing risk factors; it is aimed at individuals exposed to or displaying specific risk factors. To continue the example of a schoolwide program to prevent behavior disorders, specialized interventions would be aimed only at those students exhibiting early signs of troubled behavior.
  • Tertiary prevention is intended to minimize the impact of a specific condition, to prevent the effects of a disability from worsening; it is aimed at individuals with a disability. For example, intensive interventions would be aimed at students identified with emotional and behavioral disorders.

Preventive efforts are most promising when they begin as early as possible—even before birth, in many cases. In later chapters, we explore some of the promising new methods for preventing and minimizing the effects of disabilities. Unfortunately, primary and secondary prevention programs have only just begun to affect the incidence, prevalence, and severity of disabilities in this country. And it is likely that we will be well into the 21st century before we achieve a significant reduction in the incidence of disabilities. In the meantime, we must rely on remedial and compensatory efforts to help individuals with disabilities achieve fuller and more independent lives.

Remedial Intervention.  Remediation attempts to eliminate specific effects of a disability. In fact, the word remediation is primarily an educational term; the word rehabilitation is used more often by social service agencies. Both have a common purpose: to teach the person with disabilities skills for independent and successful functioning. In school, those skills may be academic (reading, writing, computing), social (getting along with others; following instructions, schedules, and other daily routines), personal (eating, dressing, using the toilet without assistance), and/or vocational (career and job skills to prepare secondary students for the world of work). The underlying assumption of remedial intervention is that a person with disabilities needs special instruction to succeed in typical settings. 

Compensatory Intervention.  Compensatory interventions involve teaching special skills or the use of devices that enable successful functioning. This third type of intervention involves teaching a substitute (i.e., compensatory) skill that enables a person to perform a task in spite of the disability. For example, although remedial instruction might help a child with cerebral palsy learn to use her hands in the same way that others do for some tasks, a headstick and a template placed over a computer keyboard may compensate for her limited fine-motor control and enable her to type instead of write lessons by hand. Compensatory interventions are designed to give the person with a disability an asset that nondisabled individuals do not need—whether it be a device such as a headstick or special training such as mobility instruction for a child without vision.

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