STEP 3: Determining Special Education Eligibility

Special education eligibility is bound by IDEA but there are no definite rules for determining who is eligible for special education. This is a VERY important concept to understand. It means that under the law, the IEP team has the flexibility to determine if a child qualifies for services.

Criteria states that to qualify for special education services, a child must have one of the 13 disabilities as defined by IDEA AND the impact of the disability must create a need for services.

Examples of adverse impacts include:

  • A discrepancy between performance and ability
  • Limited progress, or deficiency in cognitive areas
  • Evidence of emotional or behavioral disturbances
  • Problems with fine or gross motor skills.

For example, if a child is developmentally and chronologically ten years old but continues to read at a first grade level, the adverse effect would be a limited progression in reading.

A statistical breakdown from 2007 shows the percentages of children in each of the 13 categories of special education.   

Specific Learning Disability: 44.6%
Speech and Language: 19.1%
Other Health Impaired: 9.9%
Mental Retardation: 8.6%
Emotional Disturbance: 7.5%
Autism Spectrum Disorder: 3.7%
Multiple Disabilities: 2.2%
Developmental Delay 1.4%
Hearing Impaired 1.2%
Orthopedic Impaired: 1.0%
Visually Impaired: .04%
Traumatic Brain Injury: .04%
Deaf and Blindness: .04%

With regards to ADHD and autism spectrum disorders, IDEA allows school districts to add classifications at their discretion. This means that if a disorder is severe, the IEP team can determine that a child needs special education services. Many districts use the "Other Health Impaired" category for these types of situations.

If your child’s performance is NOT hindered by their disability, they may not qualify for services, even if they have one of the thirteen disabilities.

Consequently, determining if a child is eligible is not cut and dry. It really depends on the child and their specific situation. Fortunately, IDEA was written to support this flexibility. 

If you are in disagreement with your IEP team on whether your child should receive special education eligibility, you should read the sections on collaboration, mediation, and due process.

STEP 4 of the IEP Process is

 to write the Individual Education Program.

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