Is Your Child Eligible for Special Education Under the IDEA?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Students with a particular disability that’s hurting their school work might qualify for free special ed services at public school.

Maybe your child is having trouble in school, and you suspect that it’s because of a learning disability, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), or another health issue. Or maybe you know that your child has a disability, and you want special ed services from the school district. In order to qualify for those services, your child must be struggling in school because of a specific disability.

Qualifying Conditions

As listed in the law (and described in the IDEA regulations), the qualifying disabilities are:

  • a hearing impairment, including deafness
  • a communication disorder that impairs speech or language (like stuttering, poor articulation, or vocal problems)
  • a visual impairment, including blindness
  • an orthopedic impairment
  • a traumatic brain injury caused by external physical force (meaning that it’s not congenital, degenerative, or caused by birth trauma)
  • another impairment resulting from a chronic or acute health problem (such as ADHD, asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, lead poisoning, or Tourette syndrome) that limits your child’s alertness in school
  • a serious emotional disturbance, including depression and schizophrenia
  • intellectual disability (significantly below average in functioning, along with adaptive behavior deficits)
  • development delays in at least one area (physical, cognitive, communication, social, emotional, or adaptive), but only if the child is age three through nine
  • autism, or
  • a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia or developmental aphasia, that makes it difficult to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or calculate numbers (but not including learning problems associated with economic, cultural, or environmental disadvantage).

(20 U.S.C. § 1401(3); 34 C.F.R. § 300.8.) Some states have specific guidelines on who qualifies for each type of disability in the IDEA.

A student can’t be considered a child with a disability only because of limited English skills or the lack of proper instruction in reading or math (34 C.F.R. § 300.6(b)(1)).

Disability Plus Academic Problems

Simply having one of the listed disabilities isn’t enough to qualify under the IDEA. There must also be evidence that the disability is hurting your child’s academic performance, leading to a need for special education and related services. The regulations don’t say how this negative impact should be measured. Grades and test scores are obviously an important part of the picture. But if your child is experiencing emotional, behavioral, or social difficulties at school, that could also be an indication of the disability’s impact on educational performance.

Evaluations for Special Ed Eligibility

The law requires schools to identify students who might need special ed services. But you don’t have to wait for school officials to start the process. As a parent, you can request an eligibility evaluation. Naturally, evaluations include the results of formal tests designed to measure skills and aptitude in all areas where there’s a suspected disability, including:

  • general intelligence
  • reading comprehension
  • language and communication skills
  • psychological and social development
  • vision and hearing, and
  • other physical abilities.

It’s not all about testing, however. Evaluations also consider other sources of information about your child, including

  • reports from you
  • observations from your child’s teachers
  • assessments by experts in the area of your child’s suspected disability
  • letters from your child’s doctors or counselors, and
  • work samples, grades, and other evidence of academic performance.

(34 C.F.R. §300.304.)

Once you’ve formally requested an eligibility evaluation, the school will send you a written evaluation plan. You have the right to approve that plan, approve it with specific changes, or reject it. After you’ve given your permission, the school must conduct the evaluation within 60 days, unless your state sets a different deadline. (34 C.F.R. §300.301.)

The Eligibility Meeting

The school will schedule an eligibility meeting after the evaluation is complete. You have the right to attend and advocate for your child. If the school decides that your child isn’t eligible under the IDEA, you can try to change its position through informal negotiations. If that doesn’t work, the IDEA provides a formal dispute resolution procedure known as “due process” complaint. (For more details, see our article on resolving disputes under the IDEA.)

Questions for Your Lawyer

  • My son has a high IQ, but he has a hard time interacting with other students because of Asberger's Syndrome. Does he qualify for special ed services?
  • What if my daughter’s attendance record has been suffering because of her severe depression, but she’s still managing to keep her grades up? Is she eligible for support services under the IDEA or another law?
  • It turns out we have to move to another school district before the eligibility evaluation process is completed. Can we continue with the same evaluation, or do we have to start all over in the new district?

Go to the main FAQ page on special education and the IDEA.

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