What is Special Education?

Special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parent/ guardian, to meet the unique needs of a student eligible for special education, including instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and instruction in physical education. (WAC 392.172A.01175(1))


Students may qualify for special education services under one of the following categories: 

  • Autism
  • Communication Disorders
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Developmental Delay
  • Emotional/ Behavioral Delay
  • Health Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that ensures a free appropriate public education is provided for all students, including those with disabilities, through the provision of special education and related services for qualifying students. In the law, Congress states:

Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities. (ed.gov)

Students who qualify for special education have Individual Education Plans (IEPs) designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living; (WAC 392.172A.01005(2)).

IDEA defines a child with a disability, or, a student eligible for special education, as a student who has been evaluated and determined to need special education services because of having a disability in one of the following eligibility categories: 

  • Intellectual disability, a hearing impairment (including deafness), a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment (including blindness), an emotional/behavioral disability, an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, an other health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf-blindness, multiple disabilities, or for students, three through eight, a developmental delay and who, because of the disability and adverse educational impact, has unique needs that cannot be addressed exclusively through education in general education classes with or without individual accommodations, and needs special education and related services. (WAC 392.172A.01035(1)(a))

A Free, Appropriate, Public Education, or FAPE, means that every student has the right to an education at no cost that is provided through the public school system. For students who qualify for special education, this means that specially designed instruction (SDI) and, potentially, related services, that are calculated to meet the unique needs of the student based on their individual circumstances, are provided to the student.

An IEP is a written plan for a student who qualifies for special education services that are developed by the student’s IEP team. The plan includes information about the student’s unique needs, present levels of functional and academic skills, annual goals, services minutes and locations, and accommodations/ modifications necessary for the student to access their education.

The IEP team includes the parent/ guardian, student, special education case manager, general education teacher, district representative, and any other service providers (such as the speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, teacher of the visually impaired, etc.).

The law in Washington State says that, subject to the exceptions for students in adult correctional facilities, school districts shall ensure that the provision of services to each student eligible for special education, including preschool students and students in public or private institutions or other care facilities, shall be provided: (1) To the maximum extent appropriate in the general education environment with students who are nondisabled; and (2) Special classes, separate schooling or other removal of students eligible for special education from the general educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in general education classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. (WAC 392.172A.02050 (1)(2))