Down syndrome

“Special Education” is NOT a Place; It’s a Service

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I grew up mostly abroad.

In my schools abroad, there were never services outside of mainstream for any students. In my Chinese Catholic school in Fiji, for example, students who arrived from China and came to the school were put directly into the grade level that they belonged according to their English level – that’s why there were big, strapping 15 year old Chinese boys in kindergarten.

The first time I ever saw services for kids with disabilities was in my high school in Hawai’i. There was “special education” which was this building that was kind of set off to the side, and in which every kid who walked toe-first or couldn’t see or hear was placed. I have no memory of having any interaction with any of the people in special education, other than not wanting to be grouped with them and desperately trying to “pass” as hearing so I wouldn’t.

For me, “special education” has only ever been about that building.

Now I have a daughter with Down syndrome

My daughter is going through the pieces now of being put in that building, and I’m trying to understand all that I can about IEP’s and legal pieces and “Least Restrictive Environment” and all of the other things that I NEED TO KNOW, like, YESTERDAY.

And I’m learning.

I wrote this post on where we are now. I’m glad I wrote it because not only did I receive a lot of useful information regarding what a fair and appropriate education for my daughter should look like, but I also learned how wrong I was in “special education” being a place! Wow! SO wrong!

“Special education” is not about the place, has never been about the building or about the segregated class. “Special education” is not code for “self contained classroom” –  “Special education” is about service.

Peak Parent Center Special Education Meme

Special Education is Not a Place

Like that awesome meme from PEAK Parent Center says, Special Education is not a place; it IS supports and services brought to students through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Special Education is the the framework behind any plan, work or service that is designed to help facilitate a fair and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for a student. Full stop.

With this clarification, saying “my child goes to Special Ed” is completely inaccurate, it tells you that mayyyybe the child receives some customized support for their learning? Or maaaayyyybe that they attend a self-contained classroom? It’s not clear.

If you want to drive your point home – which I did – then it’s good to know these pieces:

  • Self-contained classroom: the segregated rooms for students with disabilities
  • Special Education: the framework through which customized support for achieving educational plans are made


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Meriah Nichols is a career counselor, teacher and blogger. Single mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one gifted 2E), she is also a cat-loving Trekkie who likes her coffee hot and black.
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