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Definition of Disability and Eligibility for Education Support and Services

All school districts in the United States are required by law to identify, locate, and evaluate children with disabilities. Once this has occurred, school districts have a duty to evaluate whether the children are eligible for education support or services and then begin to develop individualized education programs for them.

IDEA and the corresponding regulations define disabilities as at least one of the following conditions:

  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities 
  • Speech-language impairment
  • Visual impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Specific learning disability (SLD) (such as dyslexia)
  • Other health impairments (subject to approval)

These disabilities must have adverse effects on the child for them to be eligible for education support and services. The definition of disability and the application of this definition is broader under other statutes.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, employs a three-part definition of "disability." For the ADA to apply to an individual, the individual's physical or mental impairment must substantially limit the individual's major life activities.

This individual must also have a record of such an impairment and be generally regarded as having such an impairment. Physical impairment can include any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of several major body systems, as defined by the statute.

Mental impairment may include any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. Since the definition is broader under the ADA, a child with a disability may request accommodation under the ADA. The same child may not be eligible for individualized education under the IDEA provisions.

Like the ADA, the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 regarding the definition of disability are broader than those of IDEA. For example, a child with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome may not be eligible for education under IDEA. However, the same child may not be discriminated against based on their disease since AIDS, and other diseases are considered disabilities under the Rehabilitation Act.

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