Is There a Stigma Associated with Special Education Services?

Published on May 11, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano


More than thirty years since the passage of the first federal law mandating special education and related services, the question lingers as to whether being found eligible for these services will “stigmatize” children.  I am asked this question on occasion by Parents, and I always provide the same answer:

The real stigma will come if your child isn’t given the tools to read, write, function independently or interact with others.

Why is the term “special education” so loaded.  I find it so disappointing when I’m talking to a parent whose child is struggling in school, and when I ask them if the student has been found eligible for special education services, they say “oh, no, he’s really smart.”  I then have to explain to them that requiring special services has NOTHING to do with whether or not a child is cognitively capable.  I have represented many, many kids with disabilities whose IQs were very superior;

In fact, only one of the many federally defined special education eligibility categories requires a cognitive deficit.

Yet, sadly, more often than being asked by parents whether or not identifying a child for an IEP will result in a “stigma,” I hear from parents that they are told this by school district staff!  Sometimes, it is overt:  “we wouldn’t want to stigmatize him,” but far more often it is more subtle.  Statements like “why would you want to label your child?” or “we really try not to qualify kids this young before they have a chance to show us what they can do” are quite common.

The optimist in me would like to see these comments as the naive opinions of the uninformed. The cynic in me who has litigated against school districts for over a decade tells me that these are the statements of school personnel who don’t want to spend more time and money on this child.  Ultimately, does it really matter which part of me is right?  The result is the same.

If the professionals working with children in our public schools continue to associate special education with stigma, then how can we expect society in general to have a different perception?

Special education services are not stigmatizing; inability to function because you haven’t been taught how to do so is.

One Response to Is There a Stigma Associated with Special Education Services?

  1. Jerel Edmonds
    July 13th, 2011 | 5:21 am

    What about special education services in high school? Once a child turns about 14 or 15 years old, it is more about transition planning, and generally at this age the child is allowed to participate in decision-making. In general, it is assumed that to receive special education services means a child isn’t very bright. Some may have emotional issues, and others may not even be cognitively impaired. What about life after graduation? Many nondisabled students aren’t prepared for life after high school, let alone special education. And college planning seems to be especially poor, since many don’t see it as an option for such students. We need to do more to help students for life, and to rid the notion that to receive special education services means that a student has a low IQ.