Learn Your Special Education Laws, Special Education Rights, and Share IEP Goal Ideas

Sep 22
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by Dennise Goldberg

The following list outlines the definitions of each of the disability categories established under the Individuals with Disabilities Education (Improvement) Act of 2004 (“IDEA”)

Disability Category  Definition Number Served under IDEA (Fall 2010) Percentage distribution of children served
Autism A developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. 418,987 6.39%
Deaf-blindness Concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness. 1,511 0.02%
Deafness A hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Included w/HI Included w/HI
Emotional Disturbance A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems 390,526 5.96%
Hearing Impairment (HI) An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness in this section. 78,820 1.20%
Mental Retardation (Will be changed to Intellectual Disabilities at next authorization of IDEA based on Rosa’s Law) Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. 456,920 6.97%
Multiple Disabilities Concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness or mental retardation orthopedic impairment), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. Multiple disabilities does not include deaf-blindness. 131,335 2.00%
Orthopedic Impairment A severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.  The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures). 63,218 0.96%
Other Health Impairment Having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome.  It must also adversely affect a child’s educational performance. 723,908 11.05%
Specific Learning Disabilities A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. 2,422,688 36.97%
Speech or Language Impairment A communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. 1,429,057 21.81%
Traumatic Brain Injury An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. 25,676 0.39%
Visual Impairment Including Blindness An impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness. 29,070 0.44%



  1. A medical diagnosis alone does not guarantee eligibility for Special Education.  There is a difference between a Medical Diagnosis and a Disability Category under IDEA.
  2. To be eligible for Special Education you must meet the definition of one of the disability categories listed above and who be reason thereof NEEDS Special Education.
  3. There is no one method that should be used to determine need and to determine whether the child is accessing the curriculum.
  4. There is more to the School curriculum then academics.  Make sure the child’s social/emotional growth is being assessed as well.
  5. Make sure your child is assessed in all areas of suspected disability.
  6. Eligibility does not drive services.  The child should receive services in all areas of need.
  7. In the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA the process for determining which children have a specific learning disability (SLD) was altered to include response to intervention (RTI).  Schools are allowed to use more than just the discrepancy model to determine eligibility under SLD.
  8. Some States also use the Category Developmental Delay for younger children.  Each State adopts a definition of developmental delay and determines whether the term applies to children aged three through nine, or to a subset of that age range (e.g., ages three through five).  If a State does not adopt the term developmental delay, an LEA may not independently use that term as a basis for establishing a child’s eligibility under this part.  There are currently 381,050 students served under this category or 5.82%.

Feel free to leave any additional tips for parents in the comment section below.

Originally published January 10, 2011

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10 Responses to “Disability Categories under IDEA”

  1. there are over 390,000 children served with emotional health disturbance but not one special school to deal with this in the state.
    Someone needs to look into this. Many of us cannot afford to send our kids to the mainland to attend a therapuetic school.

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