Special Education Eligibility and Adverse Impact on Academic Performance

Parents are often confused when their request for special education services is denied by their child’s school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) establishes thirteen categories of disabilities. It is important to note that IDEA regulations require that most disabilities must cause an adverse effect on the child’s educational performance.

That is, there must be a relationship between the child’s disability and academic performance. If parents fail to prove this connection, it is not uncommon for schools to deny their request for special education services stating the disability does not cause an adverse impact on the student’s educational performance. Some schools will point to the fact that the student is obtaining passing grades and making meaningful academic progress.

Let’s take a look at how IDEA regulations define each of the thirteen categories of disabilities.

(1) Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, 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.

(2) Deaf-blindness means concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.

(3) Deafness means a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects the child’s educational performance.

(4) Emotional disturbance, which includes schizophrenia, means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

  1. An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  2. An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
  3. Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  4. A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  5. A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

(5) Hearing impairment means 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 of the regulations.

(6) Mental retardation, (the correct term now is Intellectual Disability), means 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 performance.

(7) Multiple disabilities means concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness or mental retardation-orthopedic impairment), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. Multiple disabilities does not include deaf-blindness.

(8) Orthopedic impairment means a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).

(9) Other health impairment means having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that:

  1. 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; and
  2. Adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

(10) 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, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

(11) Speech or language impairment means a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or voice impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

(12) Traumatic brain injury means 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. Traumatic brain injury 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. Traumatic brain injury does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

(13) Visual impairment including blindness means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.

As you can see, except for deaf-blindness, multiple disabilities, and specific learning disability, ten out of the thirteen disability categories contain the key phrase that adversely affects the child’s educational performance.

To complicate matters, IDEA also gives states the discretion to set the criteria for some disabilities. In other words, the state of California has established its own set of criteria for some of the disability categories.

It is important for parents to keep the above information in mind when requesting special education services from their child’s school to avoid denial of services based on the allegation that the disability does not cause an adverse effect on the student’s educational performance. Parents would do well to assist themselves with a special education advocate who can help them navigate the complexities of the eligibility process and ensure that their child receives a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

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