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The 13 Disability Categories Under IDEA


You notice your little one is having trouble keeping up in school. Maybe they are complaining that they can’t hear the teacher during lessons, or that they get confused when reading words or seeing numbers on the board or in front of them. Your child may perhaps be struggling with some form of disability. Don’t panic, the term “disability” encompasses a wide range of conditions that may be helped with some assistance from the school.


Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public schools are required to provide special education services and accommodations to eligible students.


Note that not every child who struggles in school qualifies for these services and accommodations. To determine eligibility for such services under IDEA, a student must first receive a full individual initial evaluation. “Eligible students” are those found to have a disability that falls under one of the 13 categories outlined below and are between the ages of 3 through 21 years old.


  1. Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is a developmental disability that significantly affects verbal and non communication, as well as social interaction. It can also impact a student’s behavior, and is generally evident before age three. Other characteristics associated with ASD could include:

  • Engaging in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements

  • Resistance to changes in environment or daily routines

  • Sensitivity to sensory stimulations

2. Deafness

Any student diagnosed with deafness will fall under this category, unless they are diagnosed to be both deaf and blind (see category #5). IDEA defines this category as any child who has a hearing impairment so severe that the student cannot process linguistic information through hearing (with or without amplification), thus adversely affecting educational performance.


3. Hearing Impairment

Not to be confused with the before-mentioned category of “deafness,” the term “hearing impairment” refers to hearing loss that is not included under the definition of deafness.” This type of hearing loss can fluctuate and change over time. Note: impaired hearing is not the same as delayed or impaired auditory or language processing (see category #6)


4. Visual Impairment or Blindness

IDEA defines this category as having an impairment in vision that cannot simply be corrected with eyewear, and even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. This category encompasses both partial sight and blindness.


5. Deaf-Blindness

Students with a diagnosis of deaf-blindness experience both severe hearing and vision loss. The combination of the two causes severe communication and other developmental needs that cannot be accommodated in special education programs designed solely for deafness nor for blindness.


6. Speech or Language Impairment

Any student with difficulties with speech or language. A common example of this is stuttering. Other examples include impaired articulation, problems that make it difficult for a child to understand words and express themselves, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.


7. Specific Learning Disability (SLD)

SLD is an umbrella term that covers a specific group of learning challenges. These challenges are psychological disorders affecting the processes involved in one’s ability to read, write, listen, speak, spell, reason, or do math. Some of the most common disorders under this category are:

  • Dyslexia

  • Dysgraphia

  • Dyscalculia

Some other conditions include perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, and developmental aphasia. This is the most common category under IDEA.


8. Emotional Disturbance

Encompasses various mental health issues such as

  • anxiety disorder

  • schizophrenia

  • bipolar disorder

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Depression

IDEA describes emotional disturbance as a condition that presents itself over a long period of time and is to the extent that it affects a child’s educational performance.


9. Orthopedic Impairment

Defined as lacking function or ability of the body. This term encompasses impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations).


10. Traumatic Brain Injury

This category includes acquired brain injuries caused by external physical force, which has resulted in total or partial functional disability and/or psychological impairment that adversely affects a student’s educational performance.


11. Intellectual Disability

This term applies to children with below-average intellectual ability.


12. Other Health Impairment

This includes conditions that affect a child’s strength, energy, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that could adversely affect educational performance. A few conditions that fall under this category include, but are not limited to:

  • ADHD

  • Asthma

  • Epilepsy

  • Leukemia

  • Sickle cell anemia

  • Tourette syndrome

13. Multiple Disabilities

A child who happens to have more than one condition covered by IDEA. This category acknowledges that possessing multiple issues or conditions creates educational needs that may not be met in a program designed for a specific disability.


If you feel that your child is or may be entitled to more educational services than they are currently receiving, feel free to contact the attorneys at Holloway & Kimberlin, LLC for a free consultation and more expert tips designed specifically for parents.


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