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Disability Types

There are 13 disability categories identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In 2004, the re-authorization of IDEA also added an optional 14th category for states to include “Young Child with Developmental Disabilities” for ages 3-5.  Each state can categorize or label them somewhat differently, but they must address each category. The federal IDEA disability category terms are listed below.

1. Autism

Autism is a pervasive neuro-developmental disability that affects one in every 59 people in the U.S. Autism impairs a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. People with autism may have a difficult time understanding social cues and social behaviors, causing them challenges when engaging with those around them. Autism adversely impacts a child’s educational performance, daily routines, and independent living skills.

2. Deaf-Blindness
Co-occurring hearing and visual impairments require intense communication and educational interventions. The student with deaf-blindness cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or solely for children with blindness because they may require special adaptive equipment and services.
3. Deafness
A severe hearing impairment limits a child’s ability to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification. This condition adversely affects a child’s educational or functional performance.
4. Developmental Delay
The term “developmental delay” applies to children from birth to age three (under IDEA Part C) and children from ages three through nine (under IDEA Part B). It is uniquely defined by each state and may have different age parameters. Typically, this category means a delay in one or more of the following areas: physical development, cognitive development, communication, social or emotional development or adaptive development.
5. Emotional Disturbance
Emotional disturbances impact the individual’s ability to build or maintain interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers. They may exhibit a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression. They often develop inappropriate behaviors as well as physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or social problems. To qualify, these problems must occur over a long period of time and adversely affect educational or functional performance.
6. Hearing Impairment
Categorized differently than deafness, an impairment in hearing (whether permanent or fluctuating) is defined as adversely affecting a child’s educational or functional performance. Each state sets parameters for what audiological requirements are needed for a child to be eligible for hearing impairment category.
7. Intellectual Disability
This category is defined as significant, below-average, general intellectual functioning that occurs along with deficits in adaptive behavior. The condition occurs during the developmental period and adversely affects a child’s educational or functional performance. Each state sets their own criteria to determine what is considered sub-average using standardized tests of IQ or adaptive scales.
8. Multiple Disabilities
When simultaneous impairments occur that create a higher level of educational need than if only one impairment were present, the category is deemed multiple disabilities. Examples include an intellectual disability combined with blindness or an orthopedic impairment combined with deafness. The multiple disabilities category is typically for children who have at least two diagnoses that make them eligible for services.  
9. Orthopedic Impairment
A severe orthopedic impairment adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly (clubfoot), disease (e.g. poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), surgeries (amputations), and neurological/muscle diagnoses (Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy).
10. Other Health Impairment
This category includes conditions of a chronic or acute health problem that results in limited strength, vitality or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli. Limited strength refers to physical strength and energy and includes lack of endurance for fine and/or gross motor activities (e.g. poor trunk control, slouching, tires easily, muscular power). It also refers to a student’s emotional stamina and how the student responds to stress and/or pain. Limited vitality refers to the capacity for endurance including duration, intensity and frequency over time. It takes into consideration the level of sustained energy or effort displayed by the student. Limited alertness refers to mental processing and the ability to think clearly. It includes the ability to manage and/or maintain attention and awareness including the ability to sustain focus. It also includes heightened alertness including being overly observant, watchful or “on guard” (e.g. attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
11. Specific Learning Disability

This is defined as a disorder in which one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, dyscalculia and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor disabilities; cognitive impairment; emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage. Each state creates the subcategory names of the specific learning disability areas that affect academics. The eligibility requirements for each subcategory are detailed in state compliance standards. This is usually based on response to intervention methods and standardized scores of academic achievement tests. For example, some states have the following subcategories of this broad area: basic reading skill, reading comprehension, reading fluency skills, written expression, mathematics calculation, mathematics problem-solving, listening comprehension and oral expression.

12. Speech or Language Impairment

Some states divide these into two separate categories: speech impairment and language impairment. Other states have this as one overarching category. In general, this refers to a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a receptive or expressive language impairment or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Each state has specific eligibility criteria for all the different areas within this broad category.

13. Traumatic Brain Injury
The term includes 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, psychological behavior, physical functions, information processing and speech. These impairments may impact the acquisition, retention, and/or generalization of skills resulting from the brain injury. It may also impair the individual’s ability to achieve social competence. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.
14. Vision Impairment/Blindness
This category includes an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects an individual’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness. Each state has criteria as to what visual acuity deficits qualify for services in this category.

Have questions about the disability types listed on this page? Feel free to contact us with any questions!

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