There are thirteen categories of disability that might make a child eligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Might, I say, because schools will quickly tell you two things: one, there is a difference between medical and educational diagnosis and; two, regardless of the disability a child is only eligible if the condition has an “adverse effect on academic performance.”
Like most good lies, there is a foundation of truth to these claims. Schools will quickly, and correctly, remind you that a medical diagnosis, regardless of its validity, doesn’t equal an education diagnosis. They will seldom mention that a child may qualify for an educational diagnosis, even if they fail to meet the criteria for a medical diagnosis. Similarly, schools are quick to point out when a student with a disability is “meeting grade standard” and claim that means the condition doesn’t adversely affect their academic performance. They probably won’t tell you that is only one factor. And, they definitely won’t tell you that they need to factor in the supports required to keep up those grades. Medication, tutoring, parental help, extraordinary effort (3-4 tear-filled hours a night to complete homework) or an extreme emotional toll (anxiety/depression) can all counter the arbitrary grades assigned by the school itself. Sadly, it’s not unusual for a student to have very poor grades prior to being assessed for eligibility and suddenly make a remarkable turnaround. Challenging a teachers grade assignment is difficult, if not impossible. I’ve seen a student get “A’s” for classes where they take no tests, do no homework and seldom attend (sleeping or playing on their phones when they do).
But, I digress. Let’s talk eligibility. Here are the thirteen categories laid out in 34 C.F.R. Sec. 300.8; 5 C.C.R. Sec. 3030:
- Intellectual Disability (mental retardation), (2) deafness, (3) hearing impairment (4) speech or language impairment, (5) visual impairment (including blindness), (6) serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this part as “emotional disturbance”), (7) orthopedic impairment, (8) autism, (9) traumatic brain injury, (10) other health impairment, (11) specific learning disability, (12) deaf-blindness, (13) multiple disabilities
Regularly, I talk to parents whose child has Autism, ADHD, or Dyslexia who are instead found eligible under speech and language disorder, emotional disability, or intellectually disability. When the parents question the category they are told it doesn’t make any difference. Schools will tell you the category is irrelevant, eligibility is the key to the gate, and regardless of the category of eligibility once found eligible a child has access to all “appropriate” placements, services, supports, modifications, and accommodations. As before, this lie is based in the truth. An IEP team is charged with developing an “individualized” plan based on need. Schools will say, we’re giving you the services and accommodations you want, why does the category matter. I usually respond, “If the category doesn’t matter why are you fighting to mislabel this child.”
Because the category does matter. An IEP is supposed to be a “mobile” document. A family can move schools, cities, even states and the IEP should completely and accurately inform the new school of the child’s condition and the needed supports. The reality is certain services, interventions, supports, and accommodations are most commonly linked to specific categories. And, there is a wide spectrum of costs for different services. Students with Autism often require a one on one instructional or behavioral aide. A very expensive proposition. Label them emotionally disturbed and you have not only laid the foundation for suspension or expulsion for behaviors directly resulting from the school’s failure to provide appropriate services and supports. They may well find themselves excluded from appropriate private and non-public programs they need. Label ADHD as speech and language disorder and the child gets speech therapy from a school SLP, rather than the social thinking and executive functioning instruction they truly need. A child who tests poorly due to motivation, behavior, or attention issues gets labeled intellectually disabled and suddenly they aren’t expected to be able to keep up academically. A self-fulfilling prophecy which can have a devastating emotional toll on the child now branded “dumb.”
A child’s eligibility category should fit their disability, period. While “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” a calling a disability by another name to save a buck will always stink.