Definition of Disability and Eligibility for Special Education Services

Getting Special Education Services: Disability and Eligibility

All school districts in the United States are required by law to identify, locate, and evaluate children with disabilities. Once this has occurred, school districts have a duty to evaluate whether the children are eligible for special education and then begin to develop individualized education programs for them. IDEA and the corresponding regulations define "children with disabilities" as those suffering from at least one of the following conditions:

  • Mental retardation
  • Hearing impairment
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Visual impairment
  • Serious emotional disturbance
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Autism
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Specific learning disability
  • Other health impairments

These disabilities must have adverse effects on disabled children in order for the children to be eligible for special education and services. The definition of disability and the application of this definition is broader under other statutes. The Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, employs a three-part definition of "disability." For the ADA to apply to an individual, the individual's physical or mental impairment must substantially limit the individual's major life activities. This individual must also have a record of such an impairment and be generally regarded as having such an impairment. Physical impairment can include any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of several major body systems, as defined by the statute. Mental impairment may include any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. Since the definition is broader under the ADA, a child with a disability may request accommodation under the ADA, but the same child may not be eligible for special education under the provisions of IDEA.

Like the ADA, the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 regarding the definition of disability are broader than those of IDEA. For example, a child with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome may not be eligible for special education under IDEA. However, the same child may not be discriminated against on the basis if his or her disease, since AIDS and other diseases are considered disabilities under the Rehabilitation Act.

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