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IDEA Categories of Qualifying Disabilities

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

list with boxes checkedThere are thirteen disability categories that qualify students for special education:

1) Mental Retardation,
2) Traumatic Brain Injury
3) Specific Learning Disabilities
4) Emotional Disturbance
5) Autism
6) Speech or Language Impairments
7) Deafness
8) Hearing Impairment
9) Visual Impairment (including blindness)
10) Deaf-Blindness
11) Orthopedic Impairments
12) Other Health Impairments
13) Multiple Disabilities

Each of these categories is described below:

* Mental Retardation, now increasingly referred to as Intellectual Disability, is a formal and diagnosable mental disorder (as defined by the DSM) as well as a category of disability under IDEA. IDEA defines Mental Retardation as a disability in which children have "significant sub-average intellectual functioning," have below average adaptive functioning, and have developed these deficits early in their development. Intellectual functioning is measured by IQ testing, and a score of 70 or below is considered "significant sub-average." Adaptive functioning describes a person's mastery of everyday living skills. Most people develop these skills naturally as they grow, watch others, and interact with others, but youth with intellectual disabilities need specific instruction to learn many of these skills. Intellectual disabilities can range from mild to profound. The more severe the disability, the more educational supports the students will need. Please see our Intellectual Disabilities topic center article for more information on this topic.

Traumatic Brain Injury is defined by IDEA as 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." Car accidents, nasty falls, severe sports injuries, or child abuse can all be causes of traumatic brain injuries. To meet IDEA requirements, this brain injury cannot have occurred during birth. These injuries can cause problems with memory, language, attention, reasoning, judgment, abstract thinking, problem-solving, emotional regulation, and social interactions. We provide more information on Traumatic Brain Injuries in our Cognitive Disorders topic center. When TBIs are acquired in early childhood, they may result in a presentation similar to intellectual disabilities, so it may be useful to review that material as well.

Specific Learning Disabilities include reading disabilities, or dyslexia, writing disabilities, and math disabilities, all formal, diagnosable mental disorders under DSM. IDEA defines specific learning disability as a "disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations." Most students who receive special education services do so under this qualification. Students are normally evaluated for these disabilities through the demonstration of a discrepancy between scores on intelligence and specific achievement tests. In earlier versions of IDEA, the evaluation's goal was to prove a "severe discrepancy" between a child's achievement in a subject and the child's general intellect, but the current version of IDEA discourages schools from using that definition, as it doesn't accurately identify students' needs. We provide information on specific learning disabilities in the relevant sections of our Childhood Mental Disorders and Illnesses topic center.

Emotional Disturbance category is defined as, "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 teacher, 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." Often, children who are eligible for special education services under this category have a specific mental health diagnosis like depression, anxiety disorder, or oppositional defiant disorder, but it is not necessary for a child to have a formal mental disorder diagnosis to meet this criteria. If a child's mood or behavior disturbance is so significant that it prevents him from learning, it may qualify and should be evaluated. This could mean that a child is so anxious that she refuse to come to school and become truant, or this could mean that a child is so depressed that she argues all the time with peers, get in trouble, and neglect her work. However, there are many ways that an emotional disturbance may show itself. More information about children's mental and emotional health problems can be found in our Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety Disorders and Childhood Mental Disorders and Illnesses topic centers.