Special education (also known as special needs education) is the practice of educating students with special educational needs in a way that addresses their individual differences and needs.
Beyond this general definition, however, special education is much harder to define. Common sense tells us that is because, while human learning exists on a developmental continuum made of physical, cognitive and social milestones (like learning to walk, talk, share), many of us also experience how untypical the development of our own abilities take place. For instance, we might have skipped an academic year of school. Or we might still be holding onto the resentment of being called ‘stupid’ by our teachers. Stories abound, for instance, about how famous Nobel-prize-winning writers and scientists – Einstein, for example – were regarding as having ‘learning problems’ as children!
What these stories highlight is that trying to define human ability(and, therefore, disability) can be caught on the ‘horns of a dilemma’ that leads us to question what’s involved in determining the exact nature of ‘special education’. Yes, we have forensic, medical and other quantifiable diagnostic tests that give educators and health workers an indication of specific conditions, for instance, of hearing loss, eyesight, muscle tone and other physiological indicators. However, we also call on and apply qualitative measures such as IQ tests and other psychological diagnoses which are often disputed and accused of being inaccurate and culturally biased.
Schools generally use a combination of quantitative medical diagnoses and qualitative psychological assessments of students to address more pragmatic criteria. You can see this approach, for instance, on TEACH.COM, one of the USA’s top websites for teachers. Special education is defined by that organisation as education for “students who are mentally, physically, socially and/or emotionally delayed“. The concept of “delay” refers to an aspect of the child’s overall development that places the child behind his or her peers. The condition is severe enough to prevent the child from being admitted into a traditional classroom environment.