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Special Education

International Context

A goal of the United Nations is to make education available for all the world's students, including those who are disabled and have special needs. Doing so, however, raises many questions:

  • What children need special education?
  • What is the nature of education for children with disabilities?
  • What philosophies form the basis for education for children with special needs and their families?

Access to education for students with special education needs is a global phenomenon. The underlying assumptions, educational strategies, and authorization of legislation governing special education differ across nations, and are inextricably linked to local context, societal values, and beliefs about pedagogy and disability.

Education Philosophies

Three major philosophies have governed how a nation identifies and educates children with special needs. Historically, the medical model is the most widespread and has been used in both diagnosis and educational treatment of children with disabilities. Children receive a medical diagnosis based on psychological and physical impairments across selected domains and both strengths and weakness are identified for education and training. Children with similar diagnoses and functional levels are grouped together for instructional purposes. Standardized testing is often used to provide a diagnostic name for a disability. According to Thomas Oakland and Sherman Hu, the accuracy of diagnoses is questionable as standardized tests are often not suitably normed, and reliability and validity estimates are often not available, making international comparisons difficult.

In the environmental model, disabilities are experienced as a function of the interaction between the person and the environment. Environments can be defined in terms of psychological and social environments as well as physical environments. Environmental impediments include architectural barriers, lack of assistive technology, and/or limited transportation. Instructional techniques and learning opportunities can be structured to compensate for environmental deficiencies to ensure that children learn and achieve skills of adaptive living. The role of the environment has been recognized in a World Health Organization classification scheme for individuals with disabilities.

The inclusion model incorporates aspects of the environmental model and views children as having a right to education with and alongside their nondisabled peers. Schools are organized to ensure that each student, disabled or nondisabled, receives age-appropriate, individualized attention, accommodations, and supports to provide access to the general education curriculum. Assistive technology often facilitates inclusive schooling practice for both teacher and student.


Attempts to make meaningful international comparisons among students and the instructional supports and programs for children with disabilities are exceedingly difficult, given the differing definitions and eligibility criteria. For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports a range between 1 percent to 35 percent of the primary and lower secondary education population across twenty developed nations receiving special needs additional resources, including special teachers, assistive technology, classroom adaptations, and specialized teaching materials. Additional resources are typically provided to a higher proportion of males than females (averaging 63% to 37%, respectively).

The OECD also investigated how nations addressed the needs of students requiring support in the general-education curriculum and expanded their indicators designed to compare the proportions of students with disabilities, learning difficulties, and social and economic disadvantages. Three categories emerged. Category A refers to students who have diagnosed disabilities about which there is substantial international agreement (e.g., blind/partially sighted, deaf/hard of hearing, autism, cognitive disabilities, or multiple disabilities). Category B is an intermediary classification and refers to students who have difficulty learning and are not easily categorized in either Category A or C. Category C refers to students who have difficulty learning because of socioeconomic, cultural, and/or linguistic factors.

The OECD reported striking differences in educational placement for students with special education needs. Some nations serve virtually no disabled students in special segregated schools (e.g., Italy), while others serve more than two-thirds in segregated schools (e.g., Finland, France, Greece, and the Netherlands). Despite the increasing inclusion of students with disabilities (Category A) in the mainstream of general education, inclusion is an issue that continues to be debated.


Cecil R. Reynolds and Elaine Fletcher-Janzen provide brief descriptions of existing special education approaches that are available for more than thirty nations or regions of the world. More detailed information, data and case studies are also available for nineteen developed nations in the OECD's 1995 report Integrating Students with Special Needs into Mainstream Schools. Another collection of comparative studies by Kas Mazurek and Margaret A. Winzer includes nations with limited special education (South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip), emerging special education (Nigeria, Iran, Brazil, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, China, India, and Uruguay), segregated special education (Japan, Taiwan, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Hong Kong), approaching integration (Israel, Poland, Australia, and Canada), and integrated special education (Scandinavia, New Zealand, the United States, and England and Wales).

An examination of special education philosophies and approaches reveals the following:

  • Special education often consists of national and local governmental involvement in funding and service provision that is supplemented by the work of nongovernmental service organizations. Oversight of these programs by governments varies widely.
  • The medical model is the predominant philosophy in developing countries and in many developed countries. Environmental and inclusive models are emerging and are in varying stages of planning and implementation, primarily in the western developed nations.
  • There are no coordinating international agencies monitoring global progress in special education, but the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have developed teacher education materials in an effort to broaden the "Education for All" initiative to include children with disabilities.
  • International funding sources for education (e.g., World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, etc.), are proposing more inclusive approaches to special needs education.
  • All nations recognize a need for improved teacher education, particularly in teaching children with special needs in regular classrooms.
  • Nations with great needs for special education, usually the developing countries, are attempting to develop family or village-centered programs called community-based special education. These programs have been shown to be successful.
  • A movement toward school-university partnerships shows promise in grounding teacher preparation in the practice of schooling.

Educating children with special needs is a humanitarian effort that is both a science and an art in some nations and an act of charity in others. In every nation, education for all has social, economic, and moral benefits.

This article was written by two of the authors (Jaeger and Smith) in their private capacity. No official support or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education is intended or should be inferred.


LYNCH, JAMES. 1994. Provision for Children with Special Educational Needs in the Asia Region. World Bank Technical Paper Number 261, Asia Technical Series. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

MAZUREK, KAS, and WINZER, MARGRET A. 1994. Comparative Studies in Special Education. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

OAKLAND, THOMAS, and HU, SHERMAN. 1994. "International Perspectives on Tests Used with Children and Youth." Journal of School Psychology 31:501–517.

ORGANISATION FOR ECONOMIC CO-OPERATION AND DEVELOPMENT. 1995. Integrating Students with Special Needs into Mainstream Schools. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

ORGANISATION FOR ECONOMIC CO-OPERATION AND DEVELOPMENT. 2000. Education at a Glance; OECD Indicators. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.


ELAINE. 2000. Encyclopedia of Special Education, 2nd edition. New York: Wiley.


UNESCO, SPECIAL EDUCATION, DIVISION OF Basic EDUCATION. 1994. "The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education. World Conference on Special Needs Education: Access and Quality." Salamanca, Spain, 7–10 June 1994. <www.unesco.org/education/educprog/sne/salamanc/index.htm>.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION. 2001. "ICIDH-2: International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health." Geneva. <www.who.int/icidh>.




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