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Special education: professional careers that offer changes, challenges and promises.

Careers in special education offer graduates opportunities to work closely with students, parents, other professionals as well as with people in the community. Special Educators ensure that students with disabilities obtain the benefits of and receive the education they need to succeed. For African Americans and other people of color, the field of special education offers excellent opportunities for them to make a difference in the lives of many disabled people. Special education is instruction designed for students with disabilities. Disabilities range from mild to severe and involve all age groups including infants, toddlers, children, and youth. Through recent regulations, legislatures have emphasized a need for programs and services for students with disabilities. Classroom teachers and other related service professionals help students with mental, physical, social, and behavioral problems that may inhibit learning. Using an individualized educational plan (IEP) these educators help students to correct or compensate for the disability and work alongside classroom teachers to help meet the needs of the student. Teachers in special education generally provide academic instruction in core courses (i.e., reading, math, science, etc.). Professionals in special education provide psychological testing, counseling, school social work, occupational therapy, physical therapy, adapted physical education, school health services, and transportation. Special education teachers and related services personnel work as a team with parents and other community agencies to support students in their learning. They guide students in discovering the greatness within themselves and help them to realize that they can achieve.

What professions can I consider in the field of special education?

Many different professionals provide services to students with disabilities:

* Special education teachers design instruction, materials, goals and classroom activities to match the varied learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses of each student. They work to ensure that students with disabilities receive the most appropriate instruction so they can be successful.

* School psychologists assess students to determine their learning and behavioral patterns. The results of these tests are used to plan individual programs and make decisions about students' learning environments.

* Physical therapists use techniques to help people with certain physical limitations develop better posture, stronger muscles, and body tone.

* Speech pathologists or language specialists work with communication skill development by evaluating speech disorders or deficits in language development. These professionals give therapy that helps individuals overcome or compensate for speech and language disorders.

* School counselors work with parents or students to help ensure that students' educational, vocational, and emotional needs are being adequately met.

* Occupational therapists employ the therapeutic use of self-care, work, and play activities and environmental adaptations to increase independent functions and enhance development and quality of life.

* Adapted physical education teachers individualize and modify physical education activities to help students develop physical fitness.

* Social workers assist students and their families to help them deal with problems affecting the children's adjustment in school.

* Interpreters for the deaf facilitate communication between deaf and hearing individuals by interpreting sign language and spoken language.

What do special education professionals do?

College students with interests in special education can choose a career path that provides specialized programs for specific types of disabilities, and be trained to work with any age group, from infants to adults including the elderly. Professionals can also work in different settings in schools and the community. Dr. Raymond Elliott at the University of Alabama recommends that special education professionals obtain experiences with different ranges and with various types of disabilities during their careers. These experiences broaden the scope of special education professionals, thus making them more marketable and mobile.

In 1990, over 4.7 million disabled students were enrolled in special education. Schools are required by federal and state law to provide services for and accommodate the disabled. Recent legislation requires recruitment and training of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and persons with disabilities, and tracking the certificate status of special education professionals. According to Kahn, Maloney, and Walsh (1991), the Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA) established a priority of awarding fellowships and traineeships to people from disadvantaged backgrounds including people of color and people with disabilities.

What are students with disabilities like?

Special education students differ in ability, age, learning style, and personality just as all children do. Students are determined eligible for and placed in special education because their learning needs appear to differ from those of other similarly aged students. Plans for helping students with special learning needs are made jointly by parents or guardians, teachers, other professionals, and, many times, the students themselves.

The disabilities of students in special education vary considerably. Students with disabilities have many cognitive impairments, such as mental retardation, which ranges from mild to profound, or specific learning disabilities that are unrelated to intelligence, but can interfere with their ability to learn. Other students have physical impairments that require the use of wheelchairs or other assistive devices. Some disabled students have sensory deficits, such as hearing and visual impairments, while others have chronic health problems, multiple disabilities, or behavior problems.

What professional preparation is needed to work in special education?

States require a minimum of a bachelor's degree for certification as a teacher and in the related services professions in special education. The requirements for certification and licensure vary from state to state for each special education profession. Students usually enroll in a professional preparation program at an accredited college or university in which they are pursuing a license or certificate.

Salaries of experienced professionals with advanced degrees can range from $60,000 - $70,000 in some regions of the United States. In the last decade, teacher salaries have increased significantly and are competitive with business and private industry. Nationally, the estimated average teacher salary was $35,104 during the 1992-93 school year, according to the American Federation of Teachers (1993). This is an increase of 3.2 percent over last year's level. Volunteering is an excellent way to find out about the different professional careers in special education. Also, skills and competencies learned through working as a volunteer can be valuable assets for college students. If you are interested in helping a disabled person, parents, teachers, principals, college advisors, and community organizations are excellent sources.

Is there a need for special education professionals?

Current trends show that children with disabilities who need well-trained professionals are often the least likely to have them. The challenge of finding, training, and keeping highly qualified personnel in the special education profession is a major problem for public and private school districts and agencies that provide services to people with disabilities. The number of special education teachers, administrators, support staff, and related services personnel needed has increased significantly over the past two decades. However, the supply and demand for professionals in special education is complicated by the need for trained individuals in specific or low-incidence fields and relocation to certain geographic locations that are often unappealing to students. The increasing shortage of special education personnel threatens to seriously impede the services provided to individuals with disabilities, services required by law.

African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Native Americans are important role models for all students because children grow up in environments of diverse cultures and ethnicity. The cumulative impact of the lack of professionals of color as role models in special education can be significant. Students with disabilities, particularly those who are also from economically disadvantaged homes, face increased difficulty in overcoming cultural barriers and suffer from a sense of alienation. Teachers of color bring to the classroom unique culturally based pedagogical approaches that are often compatible with the learning needs of students of color. According to Dr. Jacqueline Irvine, at Emory University in Atlanta, these teachers are often considered cultural translators who understand these students' style of presentation. Often these educators' presence decreases alienation and contributes to school achievement. Each year more educators are hired in special education than any other teaching field. Over the past 10 years, the American Association for School, Colleges, and University Staffing has reported the various categories of special education among the fields that have the most critical shortages. Multi-handicapped, deaf/hearing impaired, speech pathology, audiology, mental handicaps, behavior disordered, learning disabilities, and psychologists are among the areas noted with shortages.

According to the Office of Special Education Programs (1993) the growing need for special education professionals is directly related to the increased numbers of students who qualify for special education services, and the fact that service agencies have consistently reported difficulties in locating qualified personnel. Although states differ in the areas in which they need special education professionals, most states report needing more than they are able to find. During the 1990-91 school year, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania reported a need for large proportions of special education teachers and/or related services personnel. Current trends show that the need for special education professionals will continue to increase beyond the year 2000.

How can I find out more about careers in special education?

Professionals that work with disabilities generally maintain membership in local, state, and national associations. Some organizations for special education professionals include:

The Council for Exceptional Children, 1920 Association Drive, Reston, VA 22091-1589, (703) 620-3660 (Voice), (703) 264-9480 (TDD).

National Association of School Psychologists, 84455 Colesville Road, Suite 1000, Silver Spring, MD 20910, (301) 608-0500.

American Speech Language Hearing Association, 10801 Rockville Pike, Rockville, MD 20852, (301) 897-5700, ext. 305 or 211 (Voice), (301) 897-0157.

American School Counselor Association, c/o American Counseling Association, 5999 Stevenson Avenue, Alexandria, VA 22304, (703) 823-9800 (Voice), (703) 370-1943 (TDD).

American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, 1900 Association Drive, Reston, VA 22091, (703) 476-3400.

National Association of Social Workers, 750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002, (202) 336-8396 (TDD).

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc., 8719 Colesville Road, Suite 310, Silver Spring, MD 20910, (301) 608-0050.

Is financial assistance available?

Although the cost of a college education has continued to increase, there are millions of students who receive some type of financial aid to assist them in covering college costs. The process of applying for federal financial aid can be confusing and time-consuming, especially the first time you locate and complete the correct application forms, but students should remember that the only students who get financial assistance are the ones who apply for it.

The education departments at most colleges and universities have information about programs that provide support to students pursuing careers in teaching, including the Indian Fellowship Program, the Christa McAuliffe Fellowship Program, and the Paul Douglass Teacher Scholarship Program.

Federal student aid programs that are offered by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement include the Pell Grant, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Stafford Loans, Perkins Direct Student Loan, Supplemental Loans for Students, plus loan programs and work study. The handbook, A Student Guide to Financial Aid, is available upon request. Call or write to the Federal Student Aid Information Center, P.O. Box 84, Washington, DC 20044, 1-800-Fed-Aid.


Recruiting and retaining quality professionals to work in special education remains a challenge for educators. The concern is prompted by the ability of available programs and services to effectively meet the needs of students with disabilities. The shortage is complicated by those programs and services of low incidence fields, certain geographic locations, and minimal representation of culturally diverse groups. Although, national, state, and local programs have been initiated to try to address the need for special education professionals, much remains to be done if we are going to help students benefit from educational experiences required by law.

Role Model Profile

Barbara Izetta Wallace Special Education Teacher Orleans Parish School Board

After serving in the Peace Corps for two and a half years in Morocco, I didn't think that there were many challenges left for me as a Special Education teacher. I had spent my time in Morocco teaching the developmentally disabled. My biggest challenge was finding and making materials to help teach about everyday life.

What became clear to me in Morocco is that simple lessons are sometimes the hardest to teach and learn. Before any effective teaching or learning can take place, a sense of respect and well-being must exist between the teacher and the learner.

Upon returning to the States, I resumed my employment in the New Orleans Public School System. I am currently assigned to a class for moderately mentally disabled teenagers. My class is community-based, which means that most of my instruction goes on outside the classroom in the real community. What I find most challenging is trying to teach activities of daily living in ways that will keep my students both interested and motivated.

I received my undergraduate degree from Baptist College at Charleston-Charleston Southern University, in Charleston, South Carolina and my Master of Education degree from Armstrong State College in Savannah, Georgia. The main lesson that I carried away from these institutions is that teaching is not a 9-5 job; it is a way of life.

Dr. Shelia G. LeVert is Director of Community Learning Services, a non-profit educational agency located in East Point, Georgia. The agency promotes educational and employment opportunities for disabled and at-risk individuals.

Dr. Phyllis N. LeVert is an education consultant with the Georgia Department of Education, Public School Recruitment Services Unit in Atlanta.
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Title Annotation:Career Report/ Education
Author:LeVert, Sheila G.; LeVert, Phyllis N.
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:Careers in forestry.
Next Article:Wanted: critical thinkers, effective communicators; career options for liberal arts graduates.

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