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The Alphabet Soup Of Special Education – What You Need To Know to Get Started

When I had breaks from college, where I was well-immersed in a classical liberal arts degree program, I’d occasionally go and work on one of my dad’s construction projects (generally industrial processing sites like chemical plants or paper mills) to make a little extra cash. As the new kid on the jobsite, I’d get paired up with whichever sub-contractor was short-handed that day. Pipe fitters, welders, electricians, heavy equipment operators – whoever needed two unskilled hands. As the jobsite go-for I was sent hither and thither to fetch this, cut that, load those, unload these, and (most often) clean that. Everything on a job site has a name, and although I was pretty well versed in Aristotelian ethics, the economic underpinnings of the Russian Revolution and descriptive vs inferential statistics, I honestly didn’t know my ear from my elbow on a construction site. I just didn’t speak the language, and my tool, hardware, and equipment vocabulary was woefully lacking. Contrary to the stereotype, most of my managers were pretty patient, but I’d like to think that I would have been worth a lot more to my employers if I’d known what they were talking about


Every field has its own lexicon, a language unto itself, with its own unique set of words, phrases, and acronyms. To the uninitiated, the lexicon of Special Education can be as intimidating as any major construction site, an impenetrable alphabet soup of acronyms as confusing as any electrician’s schematics. Hopefully this list can help get you started:

Accommodation vs Modification
If your child has either a 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP), then you’ll likely come across the terms “accommodation” and “modification.” While they may sound similar, they serve uniquely different purposes. Accommodations change how a student accesses or learns the material (ie they are allowed a text-to-speech software, or a blind student can use Braille). A modification changes what a student is taught or expected to learn (ie everyone else in the class is expected to complete the entire Quadratic Equation, but your child is only expected to appropriately set up the equation, but not solve it).

Working with school professionals to develop appropriate accommodations and modifications is a key element to traversing the Special Education landscape. Also note that in post-secondary education, access to curriculum is still accommodated (blind students in college are still allowed to use Braille), but curriculum is not modified (everyone is expected to solve the quadratic equation, regardless of identified learning challenges).

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is a civil rights law to prohibit discrimination solely on the basis of disability in employment, public services, and accommodations. Generally speaking IDEA and Section 504 cover students up until they graduate high school, whereas ADA is the law which dictates supportive academic accommodations at the postsecondary level for students with disabilities. For an excellent reference breaking down the differences between ADA, IDEA, and Section 504, see the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund chart, here.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires recipients of federal education funds (generally all public school districts) to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each qualified person with a disability who is in the school district’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the person’s disability.

Note: If a recipient (i.e., school district) is unable to provide a free appropriate public education itself, it may place a person with a disability in, or refer such person to, a program other than ones it operates. However, the district remain responsible for ensuring that the education offered is an appropriate education, as defined in the law, and for coverage of financial obligations associated with the placement. The cost of the program may include tuition and other related services, such as room and board, psychological and medical services necessary for diagnostic and evaluative purposes, and adequate transportation. (source:

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the law which ensures services to children with disabilities. IDEA governs how states and public agencies (including schools) provide early intervention, special education, and related services to the more than 6.5 million eligible infants, children, and youth with disabilities, from birth to age 21. (source:

Note – Services under IDEA may end at the time of high school graduation, which is often before age 21.

An Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) is a documented plan or program developed to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives appropriate specialized instruction and related services.

504 Plan
The 504 Plan is a plan developed to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives accommodations that will ensure their academic success and access to the learning environment.

IEP vs 504 Plan
For students with disabilities who require specialized instruction, IDEA controls the procedure and an IEP is created and implemented. The IDEA IEP process is more involved than Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and requires documentation of measurable growth.
For students with disabilities who require specialized instruction but do not need assurances for equal access to public education, a 504 document is created to outline their specific accessibility requirements. Students with 504 Plans do not require specialized instruction, but, like the IEP, a 504 Plan should be updated annually to ensure that the student is receiving the most effective accommodations.

MR vs ID
Until 2010 MR, or Mental Retardation, was used to describe students with significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviors. Since the signing of Rosa’s Law in 2010, MR has been replaced with ID, or Intellectual Disability.
Important Note: Having a Learning Disability DOES NOT equate to having an Intellectual Disability.

SPED and LD Special Education and Learning Disability or Learning Difference.
The term “SpEd” is falling out of favor in some arenas due to negative connotations. Similarly, there is a growing acceptance of Learning Differences as opposed to Disabilities, as many feel that the term “difference” highlights alternative strengths and acknowledges student’s ability to learn when those strengths are leveraged. That said, “disability” tends to be more prevalent in legal or formal documents, and many feel as though the continued use of the term “disability” helps ensure that students will continue receiving legal protections under IDEA and Section 504.

Ultimately, this list just scratches the surface of the unique terms, and acronyms, that you’ll find in the world of Special, and Specialized, Education. Having a working understanding of the vocabulary can ensure that you’re getting your, and your child’s, needs met. For a great list of other Special Education acronyms you can also check out the Center for Parent Information and Resources, here.



About the Author

headshot of Jake WeldJake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs.  He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.