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Special Education Eligibility & The 13 Categories


This article will explore determining eligibility for a category, define the 13 categories according to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), and offer resources to answer questions about the categories or special education process. We will also provide key points to consider as you encounter a permanent change of station (PCS).

Special Education Eligibility

Once your child transitions to Part B of the IDEA or if the education team evaluates your child for special education services, they may find your child eligible for services under 13 disability categories.

According to IDEA, school officials must undertake two steps to determine eligibility for these services. First, during an initial or reevaluation, the team must determine if your child meets the criterion for one of the 13 eligible disability categories. Second, they have to determine if the disability adversely affects your child’s educational performance, meaning it negatively impacts how your child is doing in school.

Key Points and State Variances Explained

Here are a few key points to keep in mind as you read this article:

  • As mentioned above, just having one of the defined “disabling conditions” doesn’t automatically qualify your child for services; the disability also needs to have an “adverse effect” on their education. It is important to note that if your child does not qualify for special education services, they may qualify for a 504 plan. 
  • As we explore the 13 categories, it is important to remember that these categories may differ in name and eligibility criteria by state. IDEA provides the minimum guidelines a state must follow.

How Do We Determine Special Education Eligibility for the 13 Categories?

IDEA requires an evaluation to determine if your child meets the criterion of a child with a disability. The team must complete a comprehensive evaluation, meaning the evaluation cannot use a single measure or assessment to determine eligibility. Your child’s team must use various tools to gather information, including parental/guardian input, classroom observations, interviews, review of existing data, and formal and informal assessment instruments.  Once the evaluation has been completed, the team will meet with you to discuss their findings and whether your child meets the definition of a child with a disability as defined by IDEA.

Can My Child Meet Special Education Eligibility for More Than One Exceptionality?

After completing the evaluation, you may wonder if your child can meet the eligibility criteria for multiple exceptionalities. The answer is yes. Ensure all categories are listed in the evaluation report and your child’s IEP. On the IEP, the eligibility category is the one that impacts your child’s education the greatest. It is important to note that these labels (primary and secondary) are mainly used as state data collection tools.

Under IDEA, all disabilities are considered equal, and the order in which they are listed does not matter. Remember, the category or exceptionality does not determine the level of services your child receives. Also, remember that whether an exceptionality is primary vs secondary can change over time, as well as your child’s disability category. These changes can occur during a reevaluation or as requested by the team.

The Importance of the 13 Categories

Before we look at the categories in detail, we should understand why schools use them. The answer is simple: Eligibility. A disability category cannot solely determine the type, duration, or who delivers the services your child receives. It will serve as a gateway for them to access special education services and receive an IEP.

The 13 Categories

So, which disabilities do the 13 categories include? This answer may not be as simple as you think. While IDEA lists 13 disabilities, the broad categories include numerous subcategories of exceptionalities. For example, Specific Learning Disability (SLD), Speech or Language Impairment, and Other Health Impairments (OHI) have at least several exceptionalities that fall underneath their broad umbrellas. It is important to mention again that in addition to the explanation below, the disability must adversely affect the student’s educational performance for your child to qualify as a student with a disability and receive special education services. To better understand this, let’s explore the categories listed in IDEA in more detail. 

  1. Autism: A developmental disability that affects communication and social interactions. Other characteristics include engagement in repetitive behaviors or activities, stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in routine, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.
  2. Deaf-Blindness: A combination of hearing impairments and visual impairments. This combination severely impacts communication, developmental, and educational needs.
  3. Deafness: A hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification.
  4. Emotional Disturbance: A condition with one or more of the following characteristics that lasts for an extended period of time:
    • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
    • An inability to have interpersonal relationships with people.
    • Inappropriate behaviors or feelings under normal circumstances.
    • Depression or persistent unhappiness.
    • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal problems or school problems.
    • Schizophrenia is included under the category of Emotional Disturbance. However, the student will only qualify if the disorder negatively impacts their educational performance.
  5. Hearing Impairment: A permanent or fluctuating impairment in hearing but is not included under the definition of the deafness disability category.
  6. Intellectual Disability: Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning exists concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period.
  7. Multiple Disabilities: A combination of impairments that causes such significant educational needs that they cannot be served in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. These impairments must be two of the other 12 disability categories under IDEA. Deaf-blindness is not included in this category as it has its own.
  8. Orthopedic Impairment: A severe orthopedic impairment caused by congenital anomaly, disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), or other causes (cerebral palsy, amputations, fractures, or burns that cause contractures, etc.).
  9. Other Health Impairment: An impairment that limits the student’s strength, vitality, or alertness, including heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, which results in a limited alertness to the educational environment. The impairment is due to chronic or acute health problems such as:
    • Asthma
    • ADD or ADHD
    • Diabetes
    • Epilepsy
    • A heart condition
    • Hemophilia
    • Lead poisoning
    • Leukemia
    • Nephritis
    • Rheumatic fever
    • Sickle cell anemia
    • Tourette syndrome
  10. Specific Learning Disability: A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. This disorder includes conditions such as:
    • Perceptual disabilities
    • Brain injury
    • Minimal brain dysfunction
    • Dyslexia
    • Developmental aphasia
  11. Speech or Language Impairment: A speech or language impairment is a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment.
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury: An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability and/or psychosocial impairment. This applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas:
    • Cognition
    • Language
    • Memory
    • Attention
    • Reasoning
    • Abstract thinking
    • Judgment
    • Problem-solving
    • Sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities
    • Psychosocial behavior
    • Physical functions
    • Information processing
    • Speech.
  13. Visual Impairment: An impairment including blindness that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Moreover, the term includes both partial sight and blindness.

Understanding Developmental Delay in Special Education: Eligibility and Guidelines

You may wonder why the list above does not include “Developmental Delay.” Per IDEA, a developmental delay is a physical or mental condition that impairs a child’s ability to learn or gain skills at the same rate as other children their age. You may use this label until a child is nine years old. However, your state may have different guidelines requiring exploring the label earlier. This label is good for younger students as it cuts down on misidentification because the child is still developing, and it is not always apparent what is causing the child’s delay, making it difficult to find them eligible under one of the other categories. 

In 2022–23, 7.5 million students ages 3–21 received special education and/or related services under IDEA, or the equivalent of 15 percent of all public school students. Among students receiving special education and/or related services, the most common category of disability was specific learning disabilities (32 percent).

Data and Disability Categories

*Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics 

As You PCS!

As you prepare for your next duty station, it is important to remember that every state must follow IDEA and cannot contradict the federal law. While they can never provide less than federal law requires, your new state may offer more services and protections to you and your child.

Review your state’s specific guidelines and vocabulary about the disability categories and their eligibility criteria. For example, some states will use the term disability category, while others will say exceptionality. Or your new state may have recently adopted a discrepancy model when determining eligibility for specific learning disabilities. Additionally, states may vary in the number of categories and how they label them. Contact your installation’s EFMP or School Liaison Office for more information about your state. You can also check out your local Parent Training Center

Navigating Special Education with Partners in PROMISE

At Partners in PROMISE (PiP), we know that navigating the special education process and ensuring your child receives the necessary services, support, and instruction to make progress can be overwhelming and sometimes confusing, especially as a military family! PiP offers various services to support you in navigating the process, paperwork, meetings, and the emotional aspect so you can be an empowered advocate for your child.

For more information on the special education evaluation and eligibility process, check out our article, Navigating the Special Ed Evaluation Process. If you want to organize your child’s educational records, download our free Special Education & EFMP Binder. Did your child not meet the criteria as a child with a disability under IDEA, but the team said you can explore a 504 plan? Read our article, IEPs vs. 504 Plans – The Main Differences Debunked.

Finally, if you need help navigating the special education process, contact us to determine your eligibility for our 1:1 SpEd Parent Consults

About the Author: Carla Wyrsch

Carla Wyrsch is the spouse of a retired United States Marine and mother of two. She has devoted her career to educating and advocating for children with disABILITIES. Her experience spans a variety of settings, including residential treatment facilities, military bases, public schools, and the Lerner School for Autism at the Cleveland Clinic. Currently, she is the School Operations Director at MIYO Health. In addition to her work with MIYO Health, Carla enjoys volunteering with Best Buddies of Greater Memphis, the Organization for Autism Research, and Partners in PROMISE as a content creator and advisory board member. She also provides coaching sessions to professionals and parents in advocacy, behavior modification, and other best practices.



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