Careers in Special Education

Careers in Related Services

There is a famous African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.”  This means that people beyond the immediate family share responsibility for the healthy growth of all children.  Many of the students with whom you interact require services from a variety of people beyond teachers. This page lets you learn a bit about some of these other professions that work in your school (and many who also work with children outside of the school). You should also note that many of these same professionals also work with adults with disabilities in the community.

What follows is a list and brief description of a variety of alternative careers that are still related to special education:

Assistive Technology Practitioners (ATP). ATP’s help individuals with disabilities get and use appropriate assistive technology to help them participate in activities of daily living, employment and education. The Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) has a credentialing program for assistive technology practitioners. Assistive technology is a booming field and formal programs around the country for individuals who want this certification are just developing. 

Audiologists. An audiologist is a licensed health care professional who diagnoses, evaluates, and treats hearing disorders and communication problems. A licensed audiologist has to complete a minimum of a master's degree in audiology. For a full explanation, visit the US Labor Statistics Page for Audiologists.  

Nurses.  Some nurses specialize in working with people with developmental disabilities and their families to assist them in living a full healthy life.  The Developmental Disabilities Nurses Association has established a specialty certification for registered nurses who serve individuals with developmental disabilities.

Occupational Therapists . School-based occupational therapy (OT) is designed to enhance a student's ability to fully access and be successful in the learning environment. This might include working on handwriting or fine motor skills so the child can complete written assignments, helping the child organize himself or herself in the environment (including work space in and around the desk), and/or working with the teacher to modify the classroom and/or adapt learning materials to facilitate successful participation.  As students reach transition age, this can also mean creating adaptations for employment. The American Occupational Therapy Association provides a broad description of OT.  OT’s can also work in hospitals or private settings outside of school.

Orientation and Mobility Specialists.   Movement is a building block for learning.  As a child explores his world and has physical contact with it, learning takes place. Children with visual impairments typically need encouragement to explore their surroundings. Orientation and mobility training (O & M) helps blind or visually impaired children know where they are in space (orientation) and where they want to go (mobility). O & M specialists have traditionally focused almost exclusively on the needs of people with visual impairment, but today the field is gradually expanding to serve anyone who has trouble getting around in the environment. However, there is still far too few of these professionals to meet the need. 

Physical Therapists .  Physical therapists (PT’s) serve people with impairments and disabilities by improving mobility, functional ability, and quality of life through bodily movement.  The American Physical Therapy Association has a great deal of information on its website.  Physical therapists play a crucial role in school settings by helping students with physical disabilities achieve independent mobility and in proper positioning; if our bodies are not positioned properly, it is difficult for any of us to learn! PT’s are also commonly employed outside of school in private settings.

Rehabilitation Counselors.  Historically, rehabilitation counselors primarily served working-age adults with disabilities. Today, the need for rehabilitation counseling services extends to persons of all age groups who have disabilities.  Rehabilitation counselors assist people with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities to become or remain self-sufficient, productive citizens. The American Medical Association (AMA) web site provides a good overview of this profession. The American Rehabilitation Counseling Association provides further information.  

School Counselors.   On a daily basis, school counselors are involved with emotional support, violence prevention, career planning and much more for all students in the school. The American School Counselor Association provides important information on how these professionals touch the lives of children.   

School Psychologists .  The mission of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) is to promote educationally and psychologically healthy environments for all children and youth by implementing research-based, effective programs that prevent problems, enhance independence, and promote optimal learning. School psychologists are involved with the entire school population, including students with special educational, emotional, and behavioral needs. Find out more on the What is a School Psychologist website from NASP.

School Social Workers.  Like school counselors and school psychologists, school social workers are dedicated to providing a safe and nurturing school environment for all students, and often extend this to work with entire families. The School Social Work Association of America was formed as a national organization of school social workers dedicated to the promotion of the profession. Most provide direct services to students and their families including group work and classroom presentations, as well as providing crisis intervention and making referrals to community agencies. 

Speech-Language Pathologists (SLP).   An SLP specializes in communication disorders as well as swallowing disorders and provide support to individuals struggling with these difficulties. Communication is an essential need for all students; some students learn to communicate via traditional means (speech), whereas other students need to use augmentative or alternative communication systems . Nearly half of all students who receive special education under our federal law receive some level of speech/language services. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association provides access to a variety of information about a career as a speech therapist.

Therapeutic Recreation Specialists Therapeutic Recreation is the provision of treatment and recreation services to persons with illnesses or disabling conditions. Therapeutic recreation specialists, often referred to as recreational therapists, work with individuals who have mental, physical or emotional disabilities. Project TRIPS (Therapeutic Recreation in Public Schools) is a site for Therapeutic Recreation professionals (CTRS's), parents of children with disabilities, special educators and school administrators to better understand therapeutic recreation. 

Note: Remember, your school has many of the very professionals described here right at your fingertips. Use them as a resource! We encourage you to set up an appointment with a professional in a field that you are interested in and “pick” his or her brain for details. Those employed both in and outside of schools are usually very willing to set aside time to talk with students who are interested in the field, and may even have information about “shadowing” to learn more hands-on.

After exploring these potential careers in the related services, choose two of interest to you. Write a paragraph about each of your selected professions. Make sure that each paragraph has five facts about the profession and reflect on what it would be like to work in these professions. What differs between the two? What questions do you still have? Who can you ask for more information? Consider contacting this person and asking them at least 5 questions about their career.