Detailed Descriptions of each Special Education Eligibility Area

As stated in the last blog posting there are numerous special education categories that students may be served in; Specific Learning Disability, Emotional Impairment, Other Health Impaired, Vision Impaired, Deaf/Hard of Hearing, Traumatic Brain Injury, Autism, Speech/Language Disorder, Multiple Impairments, and Mental Impairment.

Here are some great links to get you started. (Lists many categories and gives some basic descriptions) (Gives detailed descriptions for each state’s definition of the categories and has links to state deparments of education websites) (From a parent advocacy website –

Below are my non-education jargon-laced descriptions of each category

1. Specific Learning Disability – a learning disorder involving various processing difficulties of the brain. This includes an inability to read, write, speak, spell, and do math that can not be explained by low intelligence, environmental (home) conditions, or other factors. Processing difficulites relate to how information is taken in by the human brain, interpreted, and then demonstrated through writing or speaking. This is one of the most common categories in special education.

2. Emotional Impairment – Sometimes called Emotional Behavior Disorder or Emotional Disturbance. The child’s emotions or behavior significantly prevents them from learning. This can include acting out, having severe depression, being unable to make friends and having “abnormal” or “unusual” feelings and emotions under normal circumstances. The child has average intelligence, but can not learn. This category is very often the most difficult one for special education teachers to handle because these students demonstrate very challenging anti-social behaviors and these behaviors tend to isolate students from others and lead to very negative consequences, like juvenile delinquency.

3. Other Health Impaired – Any long lasting condition that adversely affects the overall health of the student. This can include cancer, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, epilepsy, heart conditions, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, and Tourette Syndrome. The child’s poor health prevents them from learning at the same rate of their peers. If the child’s health improves (i.e. cancer cured) they may no longer be eligible for this category. Personally, I have taught several students with cancer and without this category, they would not receive the help they need to be successful in school. Sadly, several of these students has passed away and this has had a lasting impact on me as a teacher and person.

4. Traumatic Brain Injury – It is just like it sounds. The child’s brain has been damaged due to an accident and they must deal with the educational and emotional impact of this. This disability can be very frustrating for parents and students alike, as they remember what life was like before the brain damage and they must adjust to the “new reality.” This is a rare disorder that I have had little direct experience with. Sometimes, if the injury happened at an early age, the child may be placed with students who have mental impairments.

5. Autism – A brain-based disorder that is diagnosed before age three in which the way the child processes environmental stimuli (the five senses) is significantly impaired. The way that they respond to their environment is also significantly impaired. They may repeat sounds and movements in response to their environment. They sometimes appear to be in their “own world” and be oblivious to those around them. They may have difficulties responding to changes in routine and any new situations and people. They may appear to be physically normal, but how they respond to others is not. Asperger’s Syndrome and Developmentally Delayed are forms of Autism. Until recently, Autism was a part of the Emotional Impairment category.

6. Speech/Language Disorder – Disorder that affects how a child processes language (i.e. written and spoken words) and produces language (i.e. speaking). Stuttering and stammering are included in this category. British monarchs George VI (The King’s Speech) and George III (American Revolution period) had speech impairments.

7. Mental Impairment – Below average intelligence (IQ less than 70) combined with adaptive behavior difficulties (can’t tell time, follow a routine, or do simple daily tasks at home). Though students with mental impairments tend to be around 10% of the special education student population, this is the category that the general public tends to generalize to all students with disabilities. The derogatory terms and phrases used to steroeotype people with disabilities (“Sped,” “Riding the Short Bus,” and “Tard”) tend to use this category

8. Orthopedic Impairment – a physical condition that significantly hampers the student’s education or access to the public schools. This may include cerebal palsy, spina bifida, polio, and amputations. Without the physical condition, the student would be otherwise normal and have no learning difficulties in school. These students may requirement specialized equipment (wheelchairs, braces, ramps, modified computers, etc.) in order to receive an appropriate education in school.

9. Deafness/Hard of Hearing – student’s hearing can not be adequately corrected using hearing aids. Historically, this was one of the first disability areas to receive government funding for special schools and facilities. It has been my experience that public schools systems see very few deaf students. Most of these students receive their educations at regional and state schools of the deaf.

10. Visual Impairment/Blindness – student’s vision can not be adequately corrected using corrective lenses. Very similar history as deafness/hard of hearing. Again, most of these students attend regional and state schools for the blind.

11. Multiple Disorders – If a student’s has significant impairments in more than one of the above categories. Very rare category in public schools (my experience). Forrest Gump would have been categorized in this area because his low IQ (His IQ was 73 at a time when mental impairments included anyone with an IQ of less than 75) and physical disability (spinal difficulties and leg braces). His mother wanted him to attend the public school at a time when students with mental impairments were either institutionalized or attended separate day schools.

Though the field of special education is very diverse and complicated, the general public tends to lump all the above categories under Mental Impairments.  We will discuss why this is so later…..


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