Special Education Eligibility

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The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act identifies who exactly is eligible for special education programs. The IDEA breaks special education into two sections. Infants and toddlers through age 2 are covered in Part C while children from age 3 through 21 are covered under Part B. In addition, children age 3 to 9 with developmental delay may also qualify for special education related supports.

Who qualifies for special education?

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, identifies who exactly is eligible for special education programs. Children up until age 21 who have one or more qualifying disabilities, and require special education, are eligible. Additionally, states may, at their own discretion, choose to admit into special education programming a child between the ages of 3 and 9 who is experiencing developmental delay.

The IDEA breaks special education into two sections. Infants and toddlers through age 2 are covered in Part C of the IDEA, which establishes early intervention programs. Children from age 3 through 21 are covered under Part B, which focuses on special education as part of schooling.

The qualifying disabilities and their detailed explanations according to the IDEA are as follows:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment and Deafness
  • Mental Retardation
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairments
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment/Loss
  • Developmental Delay

These qualifying disabilities are detailed below.


Autism is a developmental disability that affects communication skills and social interaction. This can have a negative impact on a child’s education. Sometimes children with autism demonstrate repetitive activities and movements. They may have extreme reactions to change, whether in location or daily activities, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. Autism is typically diagnosable by age 3.


The combination of both vision and hearing impairment in a child is considered deaf-blindness. This often can result in learning obstacles that prevent a child from attending standard classroom instruction and require special education.


Deafness is a hearing impairment to the point that a child cannot process verbal and auditory information, with or without amplification.

Emotional Disturbance

The IDEA defines emotional disturbance as a person who demonstrates one or more of the following in a way that impacts a child’s educational performance:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be attributed to another factor (for example ADHD)
  • An inability to establish and develop relationships
  • Inappropriate feelings and behaviors in standard situations
  • Persistent unhappiness or depression
  • Repetitive development of fear and physical symptoms related to school and/or personal issues

Hearing Impairment and Deafness

A hearing impairment is permanent or fluctuating diminishment of hearing.

Mental Retardation

Now commonly referred to as intellectual disability or impairment, this occurs when a child has sub average intellectual functioning and difficulty in learning proper adaptive behavior. This must occur during a child’s developmental years.

Multiple Disabilities

A combination of disabilities (not including deaf-blindness) that restricts a child’s learning falls under the category of multiple disabilities.

Orthopedic Impairment

Orthopedic impairment is limited function of the muscle skeletal system. This can be the result of damage to the muscles and bones or damage to the central nervous system that impairs the function of the muscle skeletal system. It does not matter whether a child was born with the impairment or acquired it in some other manner. The IDEA qualifies children with Cerebral Palsy for special education under orthopedic impairment.

Other Health Impairments

Impairments to a child not listed in other categories include limited strength, vitality, and heightened or limited alertness. Common conditions falling in this category include

  • Asthma
  • Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADD/ADHD
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Heart conditions
  • Hemophilia
  • Lead poisoning
  • Leukemia
  • Nephritis
  • Rheumatic fever
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Tourette syndrome

This is not an exhaustive list. Therefore, other conditions that adversely affect a child’s educational performance may qualify them for special education.

Specific Learning Disability

Impairment of psychological and mental processes that adversely affect a child’s written and spoken language skills are considered learning disabilities, specifically when they prevent a child from effectively developing listen, thinking, speaking, reading, writing, spelling, and mathematic capabilities.

Speech or Language Impairment

Included in speech and language impairments is anything that affects a child’s verbal communication skills, including stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment, and voice impairment.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Brain damage that occurs after birth due to an external force is considered traumatic brain injuries. These do not include brain damage that is congenital, degenerative, or a result of birth trauma.

Visual Impairment/Loss

Vision impairments, that aren’t able to be fully corrected with glasses, contacts or surgery that adversely affects a child’s ability to learn are considered visual impairments. Blindness is included in this definition.

Developmental Delay

Typically, development delay includes lagging in learning of physical, cognitive, communication, emotional, social, and behavioral skills. Though it is not a qualifying disability, the IDEA allows states to place students in special education programs based upon developmental delay. Each state can define developmental delay as it sees fit.

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Special Education

Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Some children require aids and supports. Parents are urged to research and meet with educators in the public and private sectors to decide the appropriate education path to meet their child’s needs.
Special Education