ERIC Identifier: ED429396
Publication Date: 1998-04-00
Author: Knoblauch, Bernadette - Sorenson, Barbara
ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.
IDEA's Definition of Disabilities. ERIC Digest E560.
During 1995-1996, 5,796,833 children in the United States ages 0-21 received
special education and related services under IDEA, Part B and Part H.
WHAT DISABILITIES ENTITLE A CHILD TO SPECIAL EDUCATION?
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142)
of 1975 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (P. L.
101-476) identified specific categories of disabilities under which children may
be eligible for special education and related services. As defined by IDEA, the
term "child with a disability" means a child: "with mental retardation, hearing
impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual
impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic
impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or
specific learning disabilities; and who, by reason thereof, needs special
education and related services."
The most recent legislation, the IDEA Amendments of 1997 (P.L. 105-17),
allows states and local education agencies to apply the term "developmental
delay" for children ages 3-9. Previously, this definition applied to children
ages 3-5. "For children ages 3 through 9, the term 'child with a disability'
may, at the discretion of the state and the local education agency, include
children who are experiencing developmental delays in one or more of the
following areas: physical development, cognitive development, communication
development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development...."
Thus, children must meet two criteria in order to receive special education:
(1) the child must have one or more of the disabilities listed below, and (2) he
or she must require special education and related services. Not all children who
have a disability require special education; many are able to and should attend
school without any program modifications. Following are the disabilities
included in the definition.
Autism: A developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and
nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age 3,
that adversely affects a child's educational performance. Other characteristics
often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and
stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily
routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply
if a child's educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the
child has a serious emotional disturbance as defined below. Autism was added as
a separate category of disability in 1990 under P.L. 101-476. This was not a
change in the law so much as it is a clarification. Students with autism were
covered by the law previously, but now the law identifies them as a separate and
distinct class entitled to the law's benefits.
Deafness: A hearing impairment so severe that the child cannot understand
what is being said even with a hearing aid.
Deaf-Blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments causing such
severe communication, developmental, and educational problems that the child
cannot be accommodated in either a program specifically for the deaf or a
program specifically for the blind.
Hearing impairment: An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or
fluctuating, that adversely affects a child's educational performance but that
is not included under the definition of deafness as listed above.
Mental retardation: Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning
existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior. And manifested during
the developmental period that adversely affects a child's educational
Multiple disabilities: A combination of impairments (such as mental
retardation-blindness, or mental retardation-physical disabilities) that causes
such severe educational problems that the child cannot be accommodated in a
special education program solely for one of the impairments. The term does not
Orthopedic impairment: A severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects
educational performance. The term includes impairments such as amputation,
absence of a limb, cerebral palsy, poliomyelitis, and bone tuberculosis.
Other health impairment: Having limited strength, vitality, or alertness due
to chronic or acute health problems such as a heart condition, rheumatic fever,
asthma, hemophilia, and leukemia, which adversely affect educational
Serious Emotional Disturbance: A condition exhibiting one or more of the
following characteristics, displayed over a long period of time and to a marked
degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance:
* An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or
* An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships
with peers or teachers
* Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
* A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
* A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or
This term includes schizophrenia, but does not include students who are socially
maladjusted, unless they have a serious emotional disturbance. P.L. 105-17, the
IDEA Amendments of 1997, changed "serious emotional disturbance" to "emotional
disturbance." The change has no substantive or legal significance. It is
intended strictly to eliminate any negative connotation of the term "serious."
Specific Learning Disability: 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 an imperfect ability to listen, think,
speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. This term includes
such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain
dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. This term does not include
children who have learning problems that are primarily the result of visual,
hearing, or motor disabilities; mental retardation; or environmental, cultural
or economic disadvantage.
Speech or language impairment: A communication disorder such as stuttering,
impaired articulation, language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely
affects a child's educational performance.
Traumatic brain injury: An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external
physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or
psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child's educational
performance. The term applies to 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; psychosocial behavior; physical functions;
information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries
that are congenital or degenerative, or brain injuries induced by birth trauma.
As with autism, traumatic brain injury (TBI) was added as a separate category of
disability in 1990 under P.L. 101-476.
Visual impairment, including blindness: An impairment in vision that, even
with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term
includes both partial sight and blindness.
WHAT IF A CHILD IS THOUGHT TO HAVE A DISABILITY?
suspected of having a disability are evaluated by a multidisciplinary team that
includes at least one teacher or other specialist with knowledge in the area of
the suspected disability. Following a full individual evaluation of the child's
educational needs, the team determines whether or not the child requires special
education and related services. If the evaluation confirms that a child has one
or more disabilities and requires special education and related services because
of the disabilities, then states and localities must provide a free, appropriate
public education for that child.
The new IDEA (P. L. 105-17) sends a strong message about the school's
responsibility to include students with disabilities in the general education
classroom and curriculum, with accommodations when necessary; "...to be involved
and progress in the general curriculum...and to participate in extracurricular
and other nonacademic activities; and...to be educated and participate with
other children with disabilities and nondisabled children..."[Section
614(d)(1)(A)(iii)]. Schools may place children with disabilities in separate
classrooms or schools only when supports and services are not enough to help the
child learn in a regular classroom.
Final Regulations for Part B of IDEA, 57 C.F.R.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (P.L. 105-17),
111 Stat. 37-157 (1997).
Nineteenth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals
with Disabilities Act. (1997). (ED412721). ERIC Document Reproduction Service
(EDRS), 7420 Fullerton Road, Suite 110, Springfield, VA 22153-2852.
Davis, W. E. (1986). Resource guide to special education. Allyn and Bacon,
Inc., 160 Gould St., Needham Heights, MA 02194. 317pp.
Rothstein, L. F. (1995). Special education law. Longman Publishers USA, 10
Bank Street, White Plains, NY 10606. 396pp.
Turnbull, H. R. III. (1993). Free appropriate public education: The law and
children with disabilities. Love Publishing Company, 1777 South Bellaire St.,
Denver, CO 80222. 389pp.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative
Services. (1992). Summary of existing legislation affecting people with
disabilities. (ED355701). ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS), 7420
Fullerton Road, Suite 110, Springfield, VA 22153-2852. 800-443-3742. 235pp.