Every child is unique and has unique learning needs. Individual Education Programs (IEPs) are created to make sure that there is a plan for meeting the unique needs of each child. But of course, using categories can help educators figure out how to approach each child’s learning needs.
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.
The IDEA stipulates that a child is to be designated under only one category. This can be difficult, as a child might sometimes fall into multiple categories. Educators will often classify the child according to the disability that affects their learning the most. There is also a classification for “multiple disabilities” to be used when the combination of different impairments means that the student’s needs cannot be served in programs for only one impairment. For example, if a child has an intellectual disability and is blind, then a program with students that only have one of those disabilities would not do a good job of accommodating that student’s needs.
You might be asking now, “how much does all this matter?” Students are given a classification based on their evaluations. As a student grows up and their disability changes, it is possible to be reclassified after an evaluation. But some parents wonder how important that is. Of course, if a child’s IEP is be tailored to their unique needs, like it’s supposed to be, then the child is getting the education they’re guaranteed! But a child’s classification can open the door to different services or schools. We don’t want a student with autism to miss out on services for students with autism because they were mislabeled with an emotional disturbance classification or a speech and language classification.
As parents, educators, and advocates, it’s important to educate ourselves about the IDEA disability classifications. The more we know, the more we can make sure our students are getting the education they deserve!