Education Law

Eligibility for Special Education under the IDEA

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is a federal law that's designed to help make sure children with learning disabilities get what they need to succeed in school. IDEA provides the right to a "free appropriate public education" or FAPE, including special education services. It gives students rights to specially designed instruction meeting their needs, at no cost to parents.

IDEA eligibility depends on two things:

  • A student must have a "qualifying" disability, and
  • The disability must adversely impact learning ability

In other words, just because your child has a disability it doesn't mean that he's entitled to special educations services.

Qualifying under IDEA

Under IDEA, the student must be a "child with a disability." IDEA is lists specific disabilities a student must have to be a child with a disability:

  • Mental retardation, or an intellectual or developmental disability. Typically, a child has a significantly below-average score on a mental ability or intelligence (that is, and IQ below 80) test and and a limited ability to function in areas of daily life, such as communication, self-care and getting along in social situations
  • Hearing impairment, such as deafness
  • Speech or language impairment - a communication disorder, such as "language delay." A child doesn't learn language as quickly as other children her age. Stuttering is another example. 
  • Visual impairment, including blindness
  • Serious emotional disturbance. A child shows one or more of the following characteristics over time to a "marked" degree: (1) An inability to learn not explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors; (2) Trouble creating or keeping personal relationships at school; (3) Inappropriate behaviors or feelings under normal settings; (4) Feeling unhappy or depressed most times; (5) Tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears linked to personal or school problems
  • Orthopedic impairment. This is a physical problem or deficiency, including a disorder or "anomaly" a child's had from birth, such as a "clubfoot" or a cleft lip; impairments caused by disease, like polio and bone tuberculosis; and impairments such as cerebral palsy and amputations
  • Autism, which is a developmental disability impacting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction. Other common behaviors are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resisting environmental change or daily routine changes, and unusual responses to sensory experiences
  • Traumatic brain injury. This is an acquired injury (that is, not congenital or from birth) to the brain caused by an external physical force. The result is total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both. It includes open and closed head injuries affecting 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
  • Specific learning disability. This makes it difficult to understand or use language, spoken or written, such as an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do math. Examples are dyslexia and developmental aphasia
  • Other health impairment. A student has limited strength, vitality or alertness caused by a chronic or acute health problem, including heart condition, spina bifida, tuberculosis, asthma, sickle cell anemia, leukemia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourettes syndrome and diabetes, among other things

Need More Than a Disability

Even if your child has one or more of the disabilities or conditions listed in the IDEA, he'll get help only if the disability hurts his ability to do well in school. If his disability doesn't make learning harder, then IDEA doesn't apply. For example, your child may have a disability under IDEA but still not qualify for help if she's:

  • Partially deaf but can hear adequately using hearing aids 
  • Is blind or partially blind in one eye but the other one's perfect 
  • Can do as well as classmates even if she is diagnosed with a learning disability like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My daughter has an IDEA disability but the school says no to special education because she's not failing anything. Does she have to fail a class to get special education help?
  • My son's IQ is well above average, but he can't keep up in reading and math. Does his high IQ mean he can't get IDEA help?
  • We're thinking about moving into a new school district, but it's told us it'll make a new IDEA evaluation and assessment of my child. Is it bound to the IEP from her current school?

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