What Is the Difference Between Special Education & Exceptional Education?

Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, schools are required to provide education services to students with disabilities.
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Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools are required to provide education services to students with disabilities. For decades, that provision of services has been known as “special education.” Many school districts have moved to referring to the provision of services as “exceptional education.”

1 Political Correctness

Language that describes individuals with disabilities has come a long way in the United States. In 2010, Congress voted to stop using the word “retarded” in describing the disabled. The term “handicapped” has been replaced by the more politically-correct term “disabled.” The same is true for “Exceptional Education.” This has become the more politically-correct term for "Special Education." “Special Education” and "Exceptional Education” are typically used interchangeably. In fact, a search for “exceptional education” in a search engine will result in several posts with “special education” in the title.

2 Special Education Stigma

"Special Education" is a loaded term that describes the education of students with special needs. However, the stigma associated with the term “special education” often leads to the over-identification of students needing special education services and the inability of students to be treated equally within the classroom.

3 Exceptional Education

“Exceptional Education” refers to the education of students with special needs as well. Author W.L. Heward believes that the term “special education” negatively implies that it only concerns students with disabilities. He cites that the term “exceptional education” is more inclusive of gifted and talented children, stating, “Exceptional children are more like other children than they are different.”

4 Either, Or

Whether or not a school district’s provision of special education services is termed “special education” or “exceptional education,” the legal obligation to help students access a “free and appropriate public education” still exists. The differing terminology does not change a student’s rights to receive services.

A native of Nashville, Tenn., Dannelle F. Walker is an education lawyer and policy maker. Her areas of expertise include teacher liability, educator ethics, and school operations. She holds a JD from the University of Arkansas School of Law.