Ask Mr. Mullenholz about Supporting Students with Disabilities

Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow Greg Mullenholz answers teachers’ burning questions about education policy. In this issue, he takes up Federal Special Education Policy.

Teacher Question (TQ):  What is meant by the term “disability” as it applies to education?

Mr. Mullenholz (Mr. M):  Currently in United States federal law, there are over 40 definitions of what it means to have a disability. The most widely used definition comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law sets out the criteria for disability as a record of, or being regarded as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities. In education, to meet the definition of disability and qualify for relevant services, a student’s educational performance must be adversely affected due to the disability. “Adversely affected,” however, does not mean that a child has to be failing in order to meet the requirements for special education services and supports.

TQ: What do teachers need to know about teaching students with disabilities?

Mr. M: Teachers need to know that states have the responsibility to provide a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities. This isn’t just a requirement, but a core tenet of American education – that education should prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. This is the basis for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA. 

Most students who are eligible to receive special education under IDEA do not have significant cognitive impairments. The vast majority of students with disabilities have speech/language disabilities, specific learning disabilities, physical disabilities, or other impairments that do not in any way diminish their ability to master grade level content and meaningfully participate in the classroom community. We also know that students who do have cognitive disabilities can learn challenging academic content when they are properly taught and supported. Studies have shown that the instructional strategies needed to support students with disabilities enable other students to learn more effectively, too. Additionally, social, emotional, and civic responsibility of all students is enhanced in an inclusive educational environment.     

TQ: What is IDEA?  Where did it come from?

Mr M: IDEA is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and  was enacted in 1975 (it was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) due to the fact that only about 1 in 5 students with disabilities were receiving any type of education at all, and the vast majority were receiving ineffective or no instruction at all. There were even states where the laws on the books prohibited students with certain types of disabilities from attending school. IDEA, which was last reauthorized in 2004, requires that all children receive an education. At the outset, IDEA was about access. Now, it is about getting results for students. Under the law, federal and state monitoring activities focus on improving educational results and functional outcomes for students with disabilities.

There are three parts to the IDEA legislation:  Part A outlines the general provisions of the law; Part B covers the education of students from age 3 to age 21; Part C emphasizes children from birth until age 3. 

TQ:  How has IDEA changed the way schools operate and teachers teach?

Mr M:To insure  that students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate education, IDEA requires the creation of an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) for any student with a disability. The IEP should detail services, supports, interventions, and goals for each student. To avoid the issue of segregation or “warehousing” of students with disabilities, school systems must ensure that all students are placed in the Least Restrictive Environments, or LRE and that they “be involved in and progress in the general curriculum.” This means that students with disabilities should receive their education alongside nondisabled peers, unless the severity of the disability is such “that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” IDEA has important provisions that protect the rights of children and families.

TQ: At the federal level, who oversees the education of students with disabilities? What is their role?

Mr. M: Within the US Department of Education, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) oversees the implementation of IDEA and other federal laws related to individuals with disabilities.  OSERS’s mission is “to provide leadership to achieve full integration and participation in society of people with disabilities by ensuring equal opportunity and access to and excellence in education, employment, and community living.” OSERS does everything from assuring compliance with IDEA to administering grant programs to supporting research efforts. OSERS is actually comprised of three program components including the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), and the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). NIDRR provides leadership around research and other efforts aimed at assuring improved life outcomes for individuals with disabilities, from birth through adulthood. RSA oversees grant programs that help adults with disabilities live independently with gainful employment through the provision of support services. And, finally, OSEP provides supports for children from birth to the age of 21 indirectly by providing states with financial support and technical assistance. 

TQ: What resources are available from the Department of Education to help me teach students with disabilities?

Mr. M: OSEP supports an extremely helpful resource for teachers called Bookshare. For teachers of students with disabilities, this is a must-have resource.

Bookshare is an “online accessible digital library for print disabled readers.” OSEP awarded Bookshare, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, Calif., with a $32 million grant over five years to support their work in assisting students with disabilities in accessing high-quality texts. Bookshare’s volunteers have uploaded thousands of book titles that are accessible and can be used through many widely available screen reading programs. As a teacher who worked in a fully inclusive classroom, my students with disabilities had access to Bookshare and assistive technology that gave them the access to texts in our reading class and the ability to do research. Before, my students with disabilities were disappointed when the class was abuzz with discussions about Captain Underpants or The Series of Unfortunate Events. Now, thanks to Bookshare and OSEP’s funding and support, all of my kids are excited to read a wide variety of texts that might have been previously unavailable to them. “Through an exemption in the U.S. copyright law Bookshare serves a community of individuals with qualified print disabilities, such as visual impairments, physical disabilities or severe learning disabilities that affect reading”.  And the best part….Bookshare is free!

OSEP also funds the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS, as many educators who work in PBIS schools know, is not a curriculum, but a decision making framework that guides the ”selection, integration, and implementation of the best evidenced-based academic and behavioral practices for improving important academic and behavior outcomes for all students.” So, as a teacher, OSEP indirectly funded the work that was done at my school, Twinbrook Elementary, to transform the schoolwide behavioral system that sought to reduce the number of office referrals and the rate of suspensions. Our school was awarded the 2011 Silver Award by PBIS Maryland for successful implementation of our schoolwide programming and the ability to demonstrate that it had a positive impact.

Another fantastic resource for all is the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (Formerly known as NICHCY).  The Dissemination Center is an information and referral center serving the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Territories.  They provide families, students, educators, and others with information on disability-related topics regarding children and youth, birth through 21.  They also provide information to help you locate organizations and agencies within your state that address disability-related issues.  You may contact them at (800) 695-0285 or visit them on the web at

The Office of Special Education Programs also funds the National Center for Educational Outcomes (NCEO), which takes a leading national role in designing assessments and accountability systems that monitor educational results for all students, including students with disabilities and English Language Learners. OSEP also funds the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Education (CADRE) which works to increase the Nation’s capacity for dispute resolution involving special education,  the Technical Assistance and Dissemination Network which coordinates special and general education technical assistance initiatives across regions and topics, and many other wonderful programs that impact the lives of our students and their families.

For more information and resources relating to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, visit