What do Magic Johnson, Mozart, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, and Whoopi Goldberg have in common? They are among many famous people with learning disabilities, and they help dispel the harmful misconception that students with disabilities cannot succeed.

Misconceptions surrounding exceptional and special education are, unfortunately, common. These misunderstandings can discourage parents from seeking help for their children, lead to stereotypes and stigmas, and cause negative school experiences for students with special needs.

Educators with a Master of Science (M.S.) in Exceptional Student Education can help dispel these myths to promote learning environments that create a sense of belonging and meet the unique needs of every child.

What Is Exceptional Education?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the special education law that requires schools in every state to provide a “free appropriate public education” to eligible children with disabilities.

“Exceptional” is increasingly a more inclusive term in special education. In Florida, for instance, “exceptional student education” (ESE) includes students who are gifted and students who have disabilities. Florida’s Department of Education defines gifted as “students who have superior intellectual development and are capable of high performance.”

What Are 5 Myths in Exceptional and Special Education?

There are many types of learning needs. Students may have one special need, or they may have more than one. For example, a gifted student may also have dyslexia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or another learning disability. Students can also have multiple learning disabilities, such as ADHD and anxiety.

The following are five common misunderstandings in exceptional and special education.

Myth #1: Not very many students have special needs.

Disabilities are more common than many people think. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 15% of students receive services for an identified disability (as of 2020–2021). That’s 7.2 million students. The most common disability category (33%) was “specific learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia and dysgraphia.

Myth #2: It is easy to observe someone’s special needs.

The misconception is that disabilities are obvious, but “invisible” disabilities affect many students. Anxiety, hearing loss, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, brain injury, and diabetes are just a few examples.

This misconception relates to another myth: kids who receive accommodations have an unfair advantage. Why does one student get extended time on tests? Why does another get to take extra breaks? Building understanding about learning differences fosters an inclusive school environment.

Myth #3: Students with learning disabilities have separate classrooms.

The truth is a majority of students receiving special education services spend at least 80% of their day in general classrooms. In fact, IDEA requires that children with disabilities are educated with their peers in general classes (the least restrictive environment) “to the maximum extent appropriate.”
Myth #4: Students with disabilities are not as smart as other kids.

This misconception can lead to stigmas that cause lasting harm. Consider dysgraphia, a common neurological disorder that interferes with fine motor control and writing. Students with dysgraphia struggle to hold a pencil, which makes writing an exhausting and painful process. Forming letters and numbers is complex, and handwriting may be illegible or “messy.”

Students with dysgraphia are often judged as sloppy or “not that smart” by those unfamiliar with the disorder. In fact, kids with dysgraphia typically have average or above-average intelligence.

Myth #5: Gifted students should be able to manage independently.

Academically gifted students may be bored when placed in classrooms that are appropriate for their age. In the case of asynchronous development, students may excel in one area but lag in another.

Students with exceptional intellectual ability may have difficulty fitting in. Some may hide their abilities in an effort to conform. Others may have a learning disability that impacts academic performance. Well-trained educators can help schools meet the complex needs of students in gifted education programs.

Most states are experiencing teacher shortages. In Florida, for example, exceptional student education is identified as a critical teacher shortage area.

Closely aligned with the Florida Exceptional Student Education Competencies and Skills, Barry University’s M.S. in Exceptional Student Education online program prepares educators to advance understanding of special needs, become more effective teachers, pursue various roles, and promote success for students in school and beyond.

Learn more about Barry University’s online M.S. in Exceptional Student Education program.