Ethics are about right and wrong, good and bad. Fundamentally, ethical issues are those issues where people struggle to figure out the right thing to do. In special education, the struggle to determine what is right and wrong is tricky, as special educators often need to balance the needs and wants of many different educational stakeholders from teachers and administrators to parents and, most importantly, students.


According to Marilyn Friend, author of "Special Education: Contemporary Perspectives for School Professionals," diagnosis is an imperfect science. Many factors can contribute to a medical diagnosis in addition to the medical professional's input, including pressure from parents or schools, problems related to diagnostic "trends," or simply the diagnostic procedures of different doctors. The imperfection of diagnosis creates an ethical problem for special education programs. These programs must figure out how to use diagnostic information about students when determining the best accommodations. In some cases, according to "What Every Special Educator Must Know," special educators may even choose not to offer special education accommodations to children who have received a diagnosis qualifying them for special health care.

Inclusion versus Exclusion

Central to most special education programs, according to Marilyn Friend, is the debate about whether students with severe disabilities should receive specialized and separate instruction or whether they should receive assistance in the same classroom as their peers. As the Council for Exceptional Children indicates, inclusion's purpose is to provide "meaningful and inclusive participation." Occasionally, a student's disability may prevent her inclusion from leading to such meaningful participation, or some may feel the student's inclusion will prevent other students from obtaining a meaningful educational experience. This is an ethical issue because special educators must consider each of these possibilities as they struggle to determine what is the right thing to do.


Friend recognizes that in terms of education, fairness can mean two drastically different things. “Fairness” either means that each student is treated exactly the same, or it means that each student is treated exactly as they need to be treated. In the former definition, it would be considered “fair” to deny students with disabilities special services. In the latter definition, it would be considered “fair” to deny students without disabilities special services. Resolving the question of what counts as fair requires special education programs to balance the needs of both students with disabilities and those without. This is an ethical issue because special educators must determine what the right thing to do is in regard to how they treat students with disabilities and those without.


Following the 2004 expansion of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students were eligible for educational accommodations until they graduated from public high school. Many colleges and universities, as well as work sites, provide similar accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But according to Peter and Pamela Wright, many special education programs fear that the accommodations under ADA are less expansive than those under IDEA. Consequently, one major ethical issue facing special education programs is the question of whether they might be making students overly reliant on services they receive in high school -- services they are not guaranteed to receive in college or in the workplace.

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