Understanding the
13 Categories of Special Education

 After an IEP meeting, have you ever left your school wondering:

  • What just happened?  What did I sign?
  • Is my child getting the best possible services?
  • Am I asking the right questions? Does this plan really meet my child's needs?

I want you to never feel this way again! You can fully understand the IEP process and become the best advocate for your child. I know that no one cares about your child's future the way you do. So, let's get started down this road, TOGETHER.



Special education is a broad term used to by the law (IDEA) to describe specially designed instruction that meets the unique needs of a child who has a disability. These services are provided by the public school system and are free of charge. Services can include instruction in the classroom, at home, in hospitals and institutions. Learning disabilities cover a wide spectrum of disorders ranging from mild to severe. They can include mental, physical, behavioral and emotional disabilities.


There are 13 categories of special education as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  In order to qualify for special education, the IEP team must determine that a child has one of the following:

  • Autism
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impaired
  • Specific Learning Disability
  •  Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment

In order for the IEP team to QUALIFY a child for services, the student must be found to have one of the 13 categories of special education and it must adversely affect their educational performance.


Special education makes it possible for your child to achieve academic success in the least restrictive environment despite their disability. The federal law governing the system is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. IDEA entitles all children with learning disabilities to a free appropriate education (FAPE). Examples of "appropriate" programs include:

  • A specific program or class for your child. 
  • Access to specialists. 
  • Modifications in the educational program such as curriculum and teaching methods.

There are hundreds of unfamiliar terms and acronyms in the IEP process. When you have time, I encourage you to review the terms and definitions appendix.


If your child is struggling in school, having social or behavioral problems, or if you suspect they have one of the 13 categories of special education, you can request an evaluation. Some school districts request that you meet with your school's student study team (SST) before conducting an evaluation. If your child does not qualify for services under IDEA, they may qualify for modifications under Section 504 of the American Disabilities Act of 1973.

If you child attends a private school you should read my special section on this in order to understand your rights if your child has a learning disability but attends a non-public school.

You may also be interested in purchasing the easy to read IEP Guide which provides you with all the information located on this web site along with sample request letters, a sample SST and 504 plan and IEP Tips in a workbook format. You can view the Table of Contents to see if it might be valuable to your situation.

What is an SST?

What is a 504 Plan?

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