The 13 disability categories under IDEA

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a glance

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to provide special education services to eligible students.

  • IDEA covers 13 disability categories.

  • Not every student who struggles in school qualifies.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to provide and to eligible students. But not every child who struggles in school qualifies. To be covered, a child’s school performance must be “adversely affected” by a disability in one of the 13 categories below.

1. Specific learning disability (SLD)

The “specific learning disability” (SLD) category covers a specific group of learning challenges. These conditions affect a child’s ability to read, write, listen, speak, reason, or do math. Here are some examples of what could fall into this category:

SLD is the most common category under IDEA. In the 2018–19 school year, around 33 percent of students who qualified did so under this category.

2. Other health impairment

The “other health impairment” category covers conditions that limit a child’s strength, energy, or alertness. One example is ADHD, which impacts attention and .

3. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

ASD is a developmental disability. It involves a wide range of symptoms, but it mainly affects a child’s social and communication skills. It can also impact behavior.

4. Emotional disturbance

Various mental health issues can fall under the “emotional disturbance” category. They may include anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. (Some of these may also be covered under “other health impairment.”)

5. Speech or language impairment

This category covers difficulties with speech or language. A common example is stuttering. Other examples are trouble pronouncing words or making sounds with the voice. It also covers language problems that make it hard for kids to understand words or express themselves.

6. Visual impairment, including blindness

A child who has eyesight problems is considered to have a visual impairment. This category includes both partial sight and blindness. If eyewear can correct a vision problem, then it doesn’t qualify.

7. Deafness

Kids with a diagnosis of deafness fall under this category. These are kids who can’t hear most or all sounds, even with a hearing aid.

8. Hearing impairment

The term “hearing impairment” refers to a hearing loss not covered by the definition of deafness. This type of loss can change over time. Being hard of hearing is not the same thing as having trouble with auditory or language processing.

9. Deaf-blindness

Kids with a diagnosis of deaf-blindness have both severe hearing and vision loss. Their communication and other needs are so unique that programs for just the deaf or blind can’t meet them.

10. Orthopedic impairment

An orthopedic impairment is when kids lack function or ability in their bodies. An example is cerebral palsy.

11. Intellectual disability

Kids with this type of disability have below-average intellectual ability. They may also have poor communication, self-care, and social skills. Down syndrome is one example of a condition that involves an intellectual disability.

12. Traumatic brain injury

This is a brain injury caused by an accident or some kind of physical force.

13. Multiple disabilities

A child with multiple disabilities has more than one condition covered by IDEA. Having multiple issues creates educational needs that can’t be met in a program designed for any one disability.

Learn more

Having a disability is not enough to qualify for special education. The disability has to have an “adverse effect” on a child’s education.

Key takeaways

  • Each of the 13 disability categories in IDEA can cover a range of difficulties.

  • Dyslexia, dyscalculia, and written expression disorder fall under the “specific learning disability” category.

  • “Other health impairment” can cover ADHD.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Rayma Griffin, MA, MEd has spent 40 years working with children with learning and thinking differences in the classroom and as an administrator.