IDEA Disability Categories

Remember, we talked about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the 6 principles of IDEA.  Now, we’re going to add the legal definitions of each of the 13 disability categories with a little info for each.

 

 

 

Autism is considered a clinical diagnosis. It is determined by a team of qualified professionals generally including a developmental pediatrician, psychologists, and/or neurologists.

If learners present with communication impairments, difficulties in making and sustaining relationships, sensory sensitivities, repetitive or nonproductive motor movements, they may meet the eligibility criteria for autism.

Using terms like low functioning and high functioning communicate more about how the learner’s autism impacts those around them rather than how the learner with autism experiences their autism. Changing our language to reflect the amount of support learners need in specific areas is more beneficial in meeting the learner’s unique needs.

Some states/districts allow school assessment teams to make eligibility determinations of autism without a medical/clinical team assessment.

The needs of a learner with autism are unique to the child themselves. Presuming competence, using the child’s interests to provoke engagement, and putting the child’s strengths in the forefront are critical components of supporting and teaching kids with autism.

Deaf-blindness is considered a low incidence disability as about .03% of those served in special education are eligible under this category.

Approximately half of those .03% have Usher Syndrome. Each child has their own unique combination of hearing and vision loss. It’s not necessary to experience total vision and/or total hearing loss to be eligible in this category.

Strategies will utilize touch cues, assistive technology, Braille, screen readers, TDD with Braille, and more!

The American Association of the Deaf-Blind is an excellent resource!

Deafness is it’s own IDEA category – separate from hearing impairment because the strengths, needs, values, culture, interventions, and decisions of Deaf children are unique. Families engage in complex decision making when raising (D)deaf children and professionals must partner with families and honor their decisions and priorities in terms of language, medical interventions, and educational goals. 

 

Let’s take a look at this category carefully, shall we?

I know it’s wordy! It’s important to see the words included in the law’s definition – and those NOT included.

Emotional disturbance (ED) is an umbrella term. Many many medical and psychological diagnoses qualify for services and supports in this category. Anxiety disorders (🙋🏽‍♀️), eating disorders, depression, mood disorders such as bipolar disorder, conduct disorders such as oppositional defiance disorder, and the rare childhood onset psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

This category is often overapplied in particular to black and brown children and to children living in poverty. The characteristics of children with ED (hoping this category is renamed very soon!) are characteristics exhibited by most children at points along the developmental continuum – the difference for learners with ED is the persistence over a long period of time.

We are challenged with considering the WHY before rushing to an ED determination. Highly qualified child psychologists and mental health experts are necessary partners in determining ED as a primary category.

This is an example of when educators wield great power over the lives of young children. We must be sure we are using that power for the good of the child focused on services and supports for the child’s success.

Why is hearing impairment its own category? Because hearing is COMPLEX!

There are a variety of ways in which hearing can be impaired – conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss, mixed, and central hearing disorders are all types of hearing loss.

And the extent to which a child’s education is impacted by their loss is complex and unique to the child!

Sound is measured by loudness (decibels) and frequency (hertz). Hearing impairment can occur in just one or both as well as in one or both ears. Do you know we have two ears to allow us to locate sound in space? Loss in one ear makes it very difficult to tell where sound is coming from!

Loss is described as slight, mild, moderate, severe, or profound based on how well a person can hear and differentiate sounds at intensities most common in speech.

Services and supports vary so never assume that one child with a hearing impairment who used an FM system means the next child with a hearing impairment will!

About 7% of kids receive services and supports under the category of intellectual disability. This (like all?!) category is also complicated because there are some genetic disorders, issues during pregnancy, birth complications, and health conditions that result in intellectual disabilities. Background information coupled with multiple means of assessment in cognitive and adaptive development provide the data necessary for eligibility in this category.

Developmental delay (or significant developmental delay in some states) provides an eligibility category to serve and support young kids before age 8-9. This gives time for loads of evidence based intervention before determination of an intellectual disability.

Due to the highly biased and problematic nature of intelligence testing (IQ tests), we have the responsibility to be aware of how kids may be underperforming on assessments for reasons unrelated to their cognitive abilities. Multiple means of assessment in a variety of modes and environments are critical. If we fail to provide a child with a highly qualified teacher and an evidence based curriculum, we cannot make a determination of ID.

Kids with intellectual disabilities can and want to contribute to and be a part of your classroom and school community. Meaningful inclusion is critical. Learn as much as you can about ID and about the individual learners in your classroom and school. Chunking, task analysis, and extended time for learning and engagement are just a few of the many strategies teachers use effectively with kids with ID. Partner with special educators to meaningfully support and include kids with intellectual disabilities in your classrooms and community. Everyone benefits when we do.

 When it’s not possible or reasonable to determine a primary eligibility criteria, IDEA gives us the “multiple disabilities” category. The key to this category is that the combination of two or more eligibility categories are causing the student to have significant educational needs.

Every single kid in this category is unique. This is an eligibility determination only. Now it’s time to learn about all the strengths and needs your learner has!

**story time**
When I was a first semester/first year faculty member in my very first tenure track position out of my doc program, I was teaching in an inclusive early childhood program. A colleague asked me to come in to her course and present on how to include “kids in wheelchairs and whatever.”

This is an extremely low incidence category for PK-12 because remember a couple of things. 1) the child’s education must be adversely affected by the disability. 2) we have ADA and Section 504 of the Rehab Act to cover environmental access issues and limitations 3) wheelchairs and walkers and standers and all the amazing accommodations we have available to give kids access to the curriculum, to their friends, and to their environment.
Less than 1% of kids receive services and supports under IDEA in this category. It is more frequently a concomitant category in the multiple disabilities category.

I asked the class how they would welcome and include a child who uses a wheelchair to access their world. They said the right things – ensure tables are the right height, adequate space between tables, accessible supplies, books, etc. Then I said physical inclusion is not meaningful inclusion and that disabilities that affect a child’s educational opportunities are rarely ones we can see. Ensuring every kid has access to their educational environment is only one of three critical components of inclusion (the other two are participation and supports).

It’s another umbrella term for a number of medical concerns and needs. This one is tricky because the diagnosis of one of the named disabilities or disorders does NOT ensure services and supports under IDEA (remember – it has to adversely affect the child’s education) AND a diagnosis other than the ones named within the law COULD result in services and supports under IDEA. Totally clear, right?

Let’s use ADHD as an example since we’re probably all familiar with it. Child is diagnosed with ADHD. Child is achieving as expected in school, on assessments, and showing adequate growth over time. Does the child qualify for services and supports under IDEA?

It’s usually not that easy but in this clean example, no. If the child needs more breaks, some environmental supports built in, a 504 plan is a better option. This child’s education is not adversely affected.

There are also medical diagnoses not stated that may fit under this category – mood disorders such as bipolar disorder. How do we determine if a mood disorder like bipolar disorder should be categorized under OHI or ED?

OHI allows us to serve and support kids who are experiencing a variety of health and medical needs. It does not mean we HAVE to qualify them under IDEA. Remember – adversely affects the child’s educational performance.

Say it again – adversely affects the child’s educational performance.

Speaking of umbrella terms . . .

First, specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

That last one is important.

There’s so much to say on SLD, more than we can say here, but know that the discrepancy model (significant difference between achievement and ability) is no longer used and that kids no longer need to fail in order to get support. Eligibility determination can be made through the RTI/MTSS process.

The lack of an appropriate evidence based curriculum or highly qualified teacher cannot be a determining factor in determining if a child has a SLD. Nor is learning English as a second language.

The word SPECIFIC is important too. When we say, “she has a learning disability” we are failing to communicate specific needs we can support. SLD is broad and encompassing category but kids served in this category have SPECIFIC learning and intervention needs.

Speech language impairment is the second most prevalent category under IDEA! (Do you know which is THE most prevalent?)

Communication is critical! No matter how kids do it – words, pictures, gestures, signs, apps, assistive technology, a mixture of all, communication is everything. Make your SLP your best friend and learn with them!

There is no right way to communicate. Whatever works for the child to get across their wants and needs, use it! Keep it always and readily available if it’s a device or a picture book. Not just for direct instruction or teaching time but always! Keep kids voices at their fingertips.

“Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. Traumatic brain injury does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma” (Sec 300.8(c)(12)

The key here is ACQUIRED. This category is specifically for kids who acquire brain injuries after birth. TBI range from mild to severe and the effects of the injury are unique to the individual.

Concussions are traumatic brain injuries.

Keep in mind that the emotional trauma of such an injury is also affecting the child. We can’t just focus on academic and behavioral supports but also emotional supports for navigating the world post-injury.

EVEN WITH CORRECTION

Kids served in this category account for less than 0.5% of kids receiving special education services and supports. It’s referred to as a “low incidence” disability because of how infrequently it occurs. This is important because if you are a teacher educator asking students to create modifications and/or accommodations for kids with specific disabilities and you use visual impairment, TBI, and a child who uses a wheelchair as your target children, you’re doing it wrong.

Kids with visual impairments, including blindness, have unique mobility and orientation needs and skills. Use your resources! Learn from mobility and orientation experts on how to set up your classroom routines in ways that include and support independence for your learner.

Additionally, visual impairments are widely variable – people experience vision in a variety of ways. So, again, teacher educators, stop using blindfold simulations and sighted guide simulations as that is ineffective and inaccurate in representing the experience of impaired vision.

Learn from the child and family! Ask! Ask more! Use color and shade and all the cool adaptations the mobility and orientation experts have available!

This is our 13th and final IDEA category. I know it hasn’t been super exciting but it’s critical we get this right. It’s the work of ALL educators to support and include kids with disabilities in our schools and communities.

What should we talk about next?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

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