Disabilities That Receive Special Education

In effect, children must meet two criteria 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.

In brief, the disabilities included in special education are:

  • autism
  • deafness
  • deaf-blindness
  • hearing impairment
  • mental retardation
  • multiple disabilities
  • orthopedic impairment
  • other health impairment
  • serious emotional disturbance
  • specific learning disability
  • speech and language impairment
  • traumatic brain injury
  • visual impairment, including blindness

Not all children who have a disability require special education; many are able to attend school without any program modifications. These are the disabilities included in the definition.


A developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction.

Usually, autism becomes evident before the age 3. It adversely affects a child's educational performance. Other characteristics of 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. 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.


A hearing impairment so severe that the child cannot understand what is being said even with a hearing aid.


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.

Mental Retardation

Significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior. And manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

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 include deaf-blindness.

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 performance.

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 health factors;
  • 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 school problems.

Note: This includes schizophrenia, but does not include students who are socially maladjusted, unless they have a serious emotional disturbance. P.L. 105-17 changed "serious emotional disturbance" to "emotional disturbance." The change 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 psycho-social 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
  • psycho-social behavior
  • physical functions
  • information processing
  • 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.


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