Special education—also known as special-needs, aided, or exceptional education—is the practice of providing students with instruction that addresses their needs through providing adaptive equipment, materials, and accessible classrooms. In most cases, special education focuses on helping students with physical, learning, and behavioral disabilities by providing them with tools that may not be available in a regular classroom otherwise.
This is generally done in the United States through granting accommodations. Special education accommodations are provided for through a host of state and federal laws, most notably the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Younger children (ages 3 and below) are served by early intervention programs; the state-sponsored Infant & Toddler Connection of Virginia has a list of local programs.
Special Education Plans
Accommodations for school-age children are determined based on the creation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan. The process of making these plans is lengthy, beginning with observation to see if there are one or more areas where the student is challenged, such as reading, writing, social skills, or other behaviors.
This is followed by an evaluation process, conducted by a team that usually includes a general education/classroom teacher, special education teacher, school administrator, school psychologist, school social worker, and the student’s parents or guardians. This evaluation reviews the student’s behavior at home and at school to see if learning is impacted by one or more disabilities. If it is, the reviewers meet again to create a plan that will establish a goal or benchmark for the student to reach and note which accommodations should be used. This plan is finally reviewed by school administrators and the parents and hopefully approved. To be in compliance, plans must be renewed every school year, and every three years the student is reevaluated for eligibility in a triennial review.
While IEP or 504 plans provide a lot of information, students, teachers, and students’ families may want to know: what other types of resources are out there for them?
In many school districts—such as Stafford and Spotsylvania—there are Parent Resource Centers (PRCs), where teachers and staff can sit down with parents to help them find more information. State agencies also contain additional resources, and many connect families with local area specialists who can provide direct support.
For example, the Virginia Department of the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI) provides online access to their Library and Resource Center, as well as giving information about local support through these hand-outs for parents and teachers working with young children with visual impairments, information about DBVI’s services, and specific resources for those with cortical or cerebral visual impairments.
More generally, the Virginia Department of Education has an email listserv for families of students with disabilities. Subscribe by visiting the email sign-up page, submit the information requested, and then check the box marked "Information for Parents and Families." The VDE also has a helpful Parent’s Guide to Special Education online.
Help from the Library
Central Rappahannock Regional Library (CRRL) offers resources that could be helpful to students with disabilities. Many are listed or described on the library’s Access Services page and include electronic materials, such as eBooks, OverDrive eMagazines the online video platform Kanopy, the online course website Lynda.com, and other online research resources that have built-in accessibility features, such as closed captioning, transcripts, font adjustments, color contrasts, text-to-speech, and language translation. CRRL’s mobile app and the Overdrive eBook collection’s Libby app also offer these features. Additionally, CRRL’s collection has a wide range of print and video resources that can be found by searching the catalog, and you are welcome to contact a librarian for reading suggestions that take into account your student's interests.
These additional classes and resources are helpful for those studying, teaching, or researching at home. For example, parents and teachers may find it helpful to try out Lynda.com courses, such as Teaching Techniques: Making Accessible Learning, or checking out a book, such as Lawrence Seigel’s The Complete IEP Guide, to learn more about how accommodations are provided.
Of course, students who receive special education services also encounter the same “summer slide” challenge that other students face, where reading levels drop as their reading slows down or stops when school is out. CRRL has created resource lists for helping to conquer the summer slide, all of which could also help students receiving special education. In addition, consider checking out read-along picture eBooks and/or pairing audiobooks with physical books to help support reading comprehension.
For those seeking audiobook materials, CRRL is also proud to be one of only 97 libraries nationwide that provide Talking Books and BARD services. These free services, which are open to all persons with vision, physical, and print disabilities, provide individuals with access to a host of audiobooks, courtesy of the National Library Service of the Library of Congress. For more information about these services or how to enroll in them, contact Access Services librarian Babak Zarin at (540) 372-1144, ext. 7054 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, some may want to know more specifics about how special education is working this year given concerns about COVID-19. The Virginia Department of Education has set up several online resources for parents and teachers to help explain. This includes the Recover, Redesign, Restart 2020 page, which describes the school reopening process; the COVID-19 Parent Guide VDOE; and the very informative COVID-19 and Virginia Public Schools website.
Special education can be an overwhelming process for participants. Hopefully, some of these resources will help make it easier, and it is important to remember that its ultimate goal is to ensure students receive the support they need to learn independently and productively. In addition, timely support can help families and teachers learn how to best guide their students throughout their lives, both academically and personally.
Note: The writer would like to thank Alisha Barnes, branch manager at CRRL’s Spotsylvania Towne Center Branch; Donna Cox, Director of the Library and Resource Center at the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired; Tracy Lee, Family Engagement Specialist and Special Projects Coordinator with the Virginia Department of Special Education and Student Services; Jimmy Morris, Orientation and Mobility Specialist at the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired; and Anne Ronnigen, Education Coordinator at the Fairfax Regional Office of the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired, for the assistance in the creation of this post.