The Department of Special Needs Education was established in 1992, based on the former Laboratory for Orthopedagogy. Orthopedagogy literally means "acting/educating in the right way". The roots of the department go back to the establishment of the Higher Institute for Education (1927), where a course on "The psychiatry of abnormal children" was taught.

In 1942, Maria Wens – assistant of Prof. Nyssen who held the chair in Psychiatry – started up a medical-pedagogical consultation unit for children with emotional and behavioral disorders. After the decease of Prof. De Busschere, the successor of Prof. Nyssen, the chair in Psychiatry was split up into Psychiatry, Neurology and Orthopedagogy. Wens became the first professor in orthopedagogy. In 1965, Orthopedagogy was recognized as a full course at the Higher Institute for Psychology and Education (nowadays the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences).

Prof. Wens and her predecessors were convinced that science and research start from practice and practical experiences and, therefore, need to be closely linked to orthopedagogical practice (as apparent from the establishment of a school and orientation center that were connected to the university laboratory). As other (Dutch) orthopedagogues, Wens saw 'action' as the core characteristic of Orthopedagogy, which has traditionally been defined as "methodic, meaningful action in problematic educational situations aimed at growth and change for the better".

In 1985, Eric Broekaert succeeded Prof. Wens as head of department and favored her empirical, phenomenological and pluralistic approach, but added the idea of dialectic integration of part and counterpart towards higher-order synthesis. Consequently, various theories, paradigms, research methods and interventions can go together and contribute to higher levels of knowledge. Later, post-modern thinking and innovative concepts that are linked to the disability studies were introduced, such as diversity and inclusion, self-advocacy, emancipation, and empowerment.

This led to an adapted, present-day definition of Orthopedagogy : "The study of methodic, integrative, ethical and meaningful social interactions and support in pedagogical situations that are experienced as problematic, with the aim to improve individuals' living situations, their quality of life and their participation in society through scientifically underpinned qualitative and quantitative research methods."

Central in this definition are the concepts of reciprocal action, intentionality, contextualization, subjectivity, multiplicity and a methodical/pedagogical approach. Consequently, the focus of Orthopedagogy is not primarily on the behavior or on the target population (e.g. persons with disabilities or a psychiatric disorder), but on the action itself.