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IDEA Categories of Qualifying Disabilities Part II

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

serious young boyThe Autism category includes all of the Autism Spectrum Disorders, also known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders. IDEA defines Autism as "a developmental disability affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three that adversely affects a child's educational performance." IDEA also recognizes that some students with Autism spectrum disorders may also show repetitive, non-functional behaviors, that can even be violent or self-harmful, and they may also show extreme resistance to change in daily routines or habits. Likewise, they may maintain extreme interest in one or two particular activities or things, like dinosaurs or family genealogy. These youth may also show extreme sensitivity or lack of sensitivity to sensory input like sights, sounds, touches, textures, tastes, and smells. More information about Autism and the pervasive developmental disorders can be found in our Autism topic center.

Speech and Language Impairment is also known as Communication Disorders. These disorders are defined as, "a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child's educational performance." This covers a wide range of problems. Some children may not be able to communicate through spoken language at all, while others struggle to organize all of their thoughts in an organized way to communicate them clearly. Other youths struggle to pronounce certain words or sounds correctly. However, communication disorders do not describe cultural differences in language, such as accents or dialects. Deafness is defined as a "hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, and that adversely affects a child's educational performance."

Conversely, IDEA defines Hearing Impairment as "an impairment in hearing whether the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child's education performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness." While a child who is hearing impaired may be able to use sound as way to gather information with the help of hearing aids or other devices, deaf children cannot use hearing.

The Visual Impairment (including blindness) category is defined as, "an impairment in vision that even with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance." The term includes both partial sight and blindness. While some children will be able to use corrective devices, like glasses, and other assistive technology to improve their visual capabilities, other children cannot use their vision at all.

Another IDEA category combines the two above disabilities. Deaf-blindness's educational definition is, "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." Because both disabilities at once so greatly impact children's ability to communicate and to learn from the world around them, deaf-blindness creates very profound needs.

The category of Orthopedic Impairment covers a large spectrum of disabilities including physical disabilities like Spina Bifida, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, spinal cord injuries, amputations, and clubfoot. IDEA reads that a, "Severe Orthopedic Impairment adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease, and impairments from other causes." These children will often need special accommodations to help them navigate their school day.

IDEA also covers other medical problems that impact a student's ability to perform academically. The category Other Health Impairment includes a long list of other medical problems that can interfere with daily functioning. This category includes diseases such as Diabetes, Cystic Fibrosis, HIV and AIDS, Asthma, Epilepsy, Cancer, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. According to IDEA, Other Health Impairment means "having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, which results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment that is due to chronic or acute health problems." These limitations have to be negatively affecting a child's education. Often, special education services for these youth require special health care accommodations and other assistive technologies woven into the general education curriculum and schedule. However, because of frequent medical care and absences due to illness, they may fall behind academically more easily. Furthermore, because of their physical limitations, they may feel left out of normal activities their peers participate in, and may feel socially isolated. Information on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is available in our ADHD topic center.

The final category, Multiple Disabilities, encompasses children who are experiencing more than one of the 12 disabilities described above. IDEA defines Multiple Disabilities as "concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, 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." However, children who are both deaf and blind do not fall under this category, unless they have yet another disability.