Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a “child with a disability” is defined as a child who falls into one of thirteen categories, and who, because they fall into that category, needs special education or related services. Those categories include children with intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, deafness, visual impairments (including blindness), deaf-blindness, speech or language impairments, emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, specific learning disabilities, or multiple disabilities.
A child ages 3 through 9 could also qualify as “a child with a disability” if they experience developmental delays, including physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development.
According to the New York City Department of Education’s 2016-2017 Annual Report on Special Education, 39.8% of students with IEPs were classified with a specific learning disability, 30.9% with a speech or language impairment, 8.7% with autism, 8.4% with other health impairment, 5.6% with emotional disturbance, 3.5% with intellectual disability, 1.6% with multiple disabilities, 0.8% with hearing impairment, 0.3% with orthopedic impairment, 0.2% with visual impairment, and 0.1% with traumatic brain injury. A very small number of students had a deaf-blindness or deafness classification.
That means that in New York City, specific learning disability and speech or language impairments are the most common disabilities, followed by autism and other health impairments. But these are some confusing categories! What do they mean?
Formally, a specific learning disability means “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.” Often, students with this classification have dyslexia (which affects reading skills), dysgraphia (which affects writing skills), dyscalculia (which affects math skills), or other troubles with listening, speaking, or reasoning skills.
The second most common category, speech or language impairment classification, officially means “a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” Speech and language impairments are very common among 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds with disabilities. Some common kinds of speech impairments affect articulation (like a lisp or distortion of a particular sound), fluency (like a stutter), or voice (this could be sounding nasal or raspy, causing pain or endurance issues). Language expression issues might include trouble with expressing ideas, following directions, or using grammatical patterns or vocabulary. Students with speech or language impairments may see a speech pathologist to practice speaking, or to learn how to use assistive technology to communicate.
“Other health impairment” can be a confusing classification, since it covers so many different types of disabilities, from ADD to life-threatening diseases. Officially, it includes students who have “limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that— Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome.” Students with this classification might have complex medical issues. Teachers might need to educate themselves about a child’s condition, and work with others to modify the learning environment to make it both safe and non-restrictive.