Special Education Around the World


This page examines the laws and regulations around special education internationally. It first addresses international laws and organizations that advocate for free and equal education for children with special needs. The second section looks at regions around the world and their views and laws around special education. We present this information so that Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) understand the access to special education around the world. In addition, this information will provide SLP’s insight into their client’s experiences with the special education system of their home country. With this information, SLPs can provide education on the differences in the U.S. system, and advocate for their clients to receive the best possible care.

Worldwide Special Education Laws and Rights

The following section describes laws that have been put forth by world-wide organizations as a “gold standard” for what education should entail for all children around the word. Although there is no legal enforcement or penalty for not complying with these laws at this time, they focus on the idea that all children have a universal right to equal education regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or country of origin. 

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nation General Assembly on December 10th, 1948. It represents the universal recognition that basic rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to all human beings, inalienable and equally applicable to everyone. Article 26 specifically focuses on the universal right of all humans to receive education.

  • Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  • Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  • Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Full text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006.

The Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a branch of the United Nations, focusing exclusively on the rights of individuals with disabilities around the world. This organization put forth the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on December 3rd, 2006 as an optional protocol for the rights of individuals with disabilities. Article 24 specifically looks at education for individuals with disabilities.

  • States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to education. With a view to realizing this right without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity, States Parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning directed to:
    • The full development of human potential and sense of dignity and self-worth, and the strengthening of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and human diversity;
    • The development by persons with disabilities of their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential;
    • Enabling persons with disabilities to participate effectively in a free society.
  • In realizing this right, States Parties shall ensure that:
    • Persons with disabilities are not excluded from the general education system on the basis of disability, and that children with disabilities are not excluded from free and compulsory primary education, or from secondary education, on the basis of disability;
    • Persons with disabilities can access an inclusive, quality and free primary education and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live;
    • Reasonable accommodation of the individual's requirements is provided;
    • Persons with disabilities receive the support required, within the general education system, to facilitate their effective education;
    • Effective individualized support measures are provided in environments that maximize academic and social development, consistent with the goal of full inclusion.
  • States Parties shall enable persons with disabilities to learn life and social development skills to facilitate their full and equal participation in education and as members of the community. To this end, States Parties shall take appropriate measures, including:
    • Facilitating the learning of Braille, alternative script, augmentative and alternative modes, means and formats of communication and orientation and mobility skills, and facilitating peer support and mentoring;
    • Facilitating the learning of sign language and the promotion of the linguistic identity of the deaf community;
    • Ensuring that the education of persons, and in particular children, who are blind, deaf or deafblind, is delivered in the most appropriate languages and modes and means of communication for the individual, and in environments which maximize academic and social development.
  • To help ensure the realization of this right, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to employ teachers, including teachers with disabilities, who are qualified in sign language and/or Braille, and to train professionals and staff who work at all levels of education. Such training shall incorporate disability awareness and the use of appropriate augmentative and alternative modes, means and formats of communication, educational techniques and materials to support persons with disabilities.
  • States Parties shall ensure that persons with disabilities are able to access general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination and on an equal basis with others. To this end, States Parties shall ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided to persons with disabilities.

Full text on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Universal Organizations Supporting Special Education

The following section describes world-wide organizations that advocate for special education equality, and provides means for professionals to discuss and promote up to date research, and to discuss improvements needed in special education systems around the world. The section provides basic information about (a) when the organization was founded, (b) the overarching goals of the organization, and (c) what the organization does in terms of advocacy for children with special needs.

UNESCO: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization

  • Founded: The UNESCO was founded in 1945

  • Overarching Goals:

    • Mobilizing countries for education, so that every child has access to quality education as a fundamental human right and as a prerequisite for human development

    • Building intercultural understanding though the protection of heritage and support for cultural diversity
    • Protecting freedom of expression, an essential condition for democracy, development, and human dignity
  • How it Supports Special Education Advocacy: 

    • Through a rights-based approach, UNESCO promotes inclusive education policies, programs, and practices to ensure equal education opportunities for persons with disabilities. The overall goal being strengthening countries’ capacity to provide quality education for children with disabilities through the development of guidelines and tools that help build an inclusive learning environment, as well as trainings for the educators of children with special needs
      • Inclusive Education In Action: a database of effective practices and knowledge supporting inclusive education for children with disabilities
      • Building Inclusive Societies for Persons with Disabilities: facilitates dialogue, provides opportunities for sharing information and knowledge among members, builds partnerships and capacities required for empowerment of persons with disabilities 
      • Education Task Force of Global Partnership for Children with Disabilities: an organization focusing on
        • Promoting accessible and inclusive learning spaces
        • Investing in teacher training for disability-inclusive education
        • Collecting data for evidence building and progress monitoring

IASE: The International Association of Special Education

  • Founded: 

    • The IASE was founded in 1985 as an all-volunteer organization, to improve the quality of life and service delivery for all individuals with special needs.

  • Overarching Goals:

    • Promote awareness and understanding of issues and developments related to education and welfare of individuals with special needs throughout the world

    • Promote professional exchange between professionals in special education, family members and individuals in related disciplines internationally
    • Encourage and promote research to advance the field of special education and share that information through official publications
    • Work collaboratively with other special education organizations for worldwide promotion of the interests of individuals with special needs
  • How it Supports Special Education Advocacy:

    • Biennial Conference of the International Association of Special Education, hosted by different countries every two years. The conference includes:
      • Presentations, discussions, and meetings by professionals of differing disciplines on issues impacting the special education delivery model, collaboration with families, collaboration with other professionals, and regarding advocacy and policies.
    • Volunteer Service Projects
      • Provides assistance in the area of special education to agencies, schools and organizations by sharing professional expertise with teachers in developing countries.  The volunteers who provide this nondenominational altruistic service are IASE members.
    • Journal of International Association of Special Education (JIASE)
      • A peer-reviewed journal that publishes research and PRAXIS articles pertaining to the education of exceptional children from around the world.  
      • The PRAXIS section of the journal is intended for the dissemination of practical strategies that readers can immediately implement in their classrooms/schools.

Country Specific Special Education Systems

The following section provides a brief overview of special education systems in various countries. This provides SLPs with an understanding of the services that children with special educational needs receive in other countries. Countries provide services to children with special education needs in various ways, and understanding a child’s previous experience with special education will help SLPs understand expectations for services within the United States. Special education systems are constantly evolving around the world, therefore it is important to be up to date with the most current systems employed.


The Ministry of Education is responsible for national policies of special education in Brazil. Special education includes groups of individuals with specific behavior patterns (problem behavior) and those with special skills (gifted individuals). There is a range of services for individuals with disabilities from nursery-level programs to higher education. Brazil has shifted its Special Educational Model from one of exclusion to inclusion.

In the Brazilian school system, there have been limited special considerations made for children with disabilities or learning difficulties in the state school system. Schools may recognize disabilities and learning difficulties and make accommodations or arrangements for special classes. In the private school system, most institutions recognize the need for accommodations and special classes for individuals with special education needs. They also provide referrals to other schools with better accommodations to meet the needs of individual children. It is a constitutional right for children with special educational needs to be integrated into the mainstream classroom.

Special educational services are available throughout Brazil in every state. It is easier to access services in larger municipalities than rural areas. With the shift towards inclusion, there has been increased access to regular public education for individuals with special needs. The curriculum is modified to accommodate individuals with special needs and is expanded to reflect local possibilities. At the age of 14, educational programs shift depending on the educational achievements or an individual's potential. They may be enrolled in workshops or pre-vocational training.


In China the Ministry of Education is appointed to license teachers, standardize the curriculum, and supervise the education system.

China boasts various types of schools. Education is compulsory, however local tuition fees and taxes are common. Children must attend school for nine years. Attendance through primary and middle school is high in the country with the main language of instruction being Mandarin.

There are schools and vocational training centers for children with special needs in China. However, mainstream schools are able to accommodate special needs students. Mainstream schools often have special classrooms or classes to help those with different needs. Children with special needs are encouraged to complete their years of education and reach the standards to graduate.

Some regions lack the resources to provide for students in special education. China adopted a policy of Suiban Jiudu, or China’s Inclusion, where mainstream schools form special classes and provide special instruction for teachers to better provide for children with special needs.

Shanghai is working with the local Education Commission to develop a special curriculum and teaching materials for children with special needs. There they have also developed a training program for special education teachers. In 2014 the Shanghai Education Commission began to offer personalized education plans for students with medical needs. The teachers and doctors work together to form an appropriate curriculum for the student.

Children with disabilities in China still face challenges accessing education. Children with mental disabilities typically face the most challenges to find appropriate placement in schools. However, the Chinese government is providing more money and services to help to alleviate this statistic. The government is working to provide more schools for special education, especially in more rural areas.

Social views on special education are slowly changing here as well. In less developed areas often families don’t see the need to educate their child with a disability. However, inclusive education is gaining strength in the country.


In the 1990s Mexico moved towards an inclusive education model. This changed the role of the special education teacher to assist mainstream teachers within their classrooms to provide appropriate accommodations for children with special needs. It is required by law for individuals with disabilities to be served and provided education through the mainstream classroom, which in Mexico is called “educational integration.”

The General Education Law of 1993 was the first federal mandate for the state to address individuals with special education needs. The special education policy uses a curriculum for all students and provides accommodations for those with special education needs. If a child is unable to function in a mainstream setting, they have the right to services in an alternative setting. The learning context is to facilitate the child’s learning, therefore it is important to determine the appropriate setting for each child.

Currently, special education is not focused on specific disabilities of children, rather they use an all encompassing approach to look at all factors of a child (home, school, community, learning style etc.) that may impact a child. Students are put into five categories following assessment of special needs, which include:

  • Auditory handicap (Discapacidad auditiva) DA
  • Intellectual handicap (Discapacidad intelectual) DI
  • Motor skills handicap (Discapacidad motriz) DMO
  • Visual handicap (Discapacidad visual) DV
  • Others - specify (otras - especificar) O

There are two models of service delivery in Mexico, which serve children with and without disabilities with educational needs. A child’s learning needs may break them into one of the two models for services:

  • Regular Education Support Services Unit (USAER): Conduct assessments, which include: history, educational experience, and work samples. Informal non-standardized assessments are also included to determine a child’s learning needs. The team includes a Psychologist, Speech-Language Pathologist, Social Worker, and Special Education Teacher. The purpose is to integrate special educational needs into regular classrooms. Classroom accommodations or adaptations are required where necessary.
  • Multiple Attention Centers (CAM): For children who are unable to be integrated into the mainstream classrooms. Alternative settings are provided for these children and are organized to provide instruction to children with diverse disabilities.  

Saudi Arabia   

The Ministry of Education, along with the Ministry of Higher Education heads the educational system in Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Education is further divided into divisions for male and female education. The Ministry develops the curriculum, which focuses on Islamic education and is taught primarily in Arabic. In state schools English is taught beginning in the fourth grade and in private schools beginning in Kindergarten. Foreign children rarely are allowed to enroll in state run schools and must enroll in international schools.

In Saudi Arabia schools, are separated for male and female students with each occupying separate facilities. This often includes parents of the same gender only being allowed to enter the school of their same gendered child.

Students with special education needs are allowed to enroll in public, private, or international schools if their academics are consistent with their age matched peers. If this is not the case the student may attend a private school. However, these schools are typically only located in the largest cities. Causing children outside of this area to lack the necessary services for education.

South Africa

Schooling in South Africa is compulsory for children between the ages of 7 and 15 years old. South Africa has 11 official languages, however, schooling is often conducted in English or Afrikaans. All children are entitled to this basic education as defined in the constitution in 1996.

The quality of state sponsored education varies greatly. Under the apartheid schools were segregated with schools serving white students receiving the most funding. Today, these traditionally “white schools” are still considered the best for education, teachers and facilities.

In 2001 The Inaugural White Paper stated that all people, children and adults, have the potential to learn, given the necessary support. The paper however pointed out that the current system did not have the capacity to recognize and accommodate the diverse range of learning needs. Focus was then shifted to screening, identification, assessment and support. Secondarily, guidelines to assist teachers in planning for, and supporting students with special needs were implemented. The White Paper did include conditions to segregate within “special schools” on the basis of race and disability.

South Africa has three main types of schools: public, private and “special schools”. The “special schools” are for children with significant cognitive or physical handicaps. Parents of children with special needs are often tasked with fighting the system to get their child into a mainstream school, even with the laws requiring a basic education for all. Inclusion is not something that is highly available for children that may require more assistance.

  • Choices for children with special needs include:
  • Private school with additional support paid for by the family
  • Specialized facilities for special education
  • Institutionalization
  • Homeschooling
  • Public school

United Kingdom

There is a European trend towards integration for children with special educational needs. Schools and educational providers are required to increase access for children with special education needs and that any accommodations made for children does not lead to discrimination.

Schools for children with special education needs may be broad or specific in the range of children who attend them (e.g., range of learning disabilities and physical disabilities vs. autism diagnosis specific). These schools are no longer under the local authority and are now considered academies allowing them flexibility in the curriculum and the rates of teachers pay. School or other educational providers must accept those with disabilities without discrimination, harassment and victimization. They are required to make fair adjustments to ensure children with special education needs and disabilities are not discriminated against.

It is required that all publicly-funded educational systems (e.g., preschools, nurseries and state schools) try and identify children with special educational needs and help them access services. A plan should be implemented to address their special educational needs and a transition plan should be drawn up in year 9. Educational providers and their sites are subject to inspection by Ofsted (a department of the government). It is part of the inspection framework and as part of the Further Education and Skills Framework.

The United Kingdom Children’s and Families Act was  created to aid families in understanding and accessing the support available to them for a variety of services, which includes children with special needs between the ages of 0-25 years. For children with special education needs the act ensures a child’s educational, health and social care services work together. It helps families understand their child’s delay or disability and what services they have access to. Children and their families are to have more choice in the help they receive. The councils need to determine if a child has special education needs or if they have a disability. Children should be given an overall assessment, which leads to a plan to address their educational, health and social care needs. There are nine essential pieces to special education needs within the Act.

  • Have education, healthcare and social services working in collaboration with each other.
  • Telling young people and their families what they need to know about their disability or special education needs.
  • Ensure that children and their families know what help they can get to address the special education or disability needs.
  • Ensure different organizations work together to help those with special education needs.
  • Give children and their families more to say about the help they receive.
  • Provide an overall assessment, which looks at a child’s educational, health and social care needs at the same time.
  • A child needs a plan to address their educational, health and social care needs, which can run from birth to 25 years if councils agree that a young person needs more time to prepare for adulthood.
  • Ensure children and their parents have the ability to choose some of the help they receive.
  • Provide to help children and their families appeal about the services they receive.

The Early Years Foundations State (EYFS) is a framework for early educational providers to ensure children are provided the best educational, healthcare and social services, which was last updated in 2014. It focuses on children’s school readiness by providing them with a broad skill set. The pieces of EYFS:

  • Three areas are emphasized: communication and language, physical development and personal, social and emotional development. Four areas that these primary categories are applied includes: literacy, math, world knowledge and expressive arts and design.
  • At age two, a progress update is provided for families on their child’s development.
  • Children are provided any additional medical support prior to starting school.
  • Partnerships between families and professionals should be strengthened.
  • When a child turns five years old the EYFS profile must be complete. This profile provides families, professionals and educators a snapshot of a child’s current level of learning, functioning and development and their expected readiness for the next year.