13 Categories of Disability Under IDEA Law

13 Categories of Disability Under IDEA Law:

There are 13 different disability categories as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), under which 3- through 22-years-olds may be eligible for services.

In order to qualify for special education, the IEP Team must determine that a child has a disability in one of the 13 categories and it must adversely affect their educational performance:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment, including Blindness


Preschool children, ages 3 to 5 years old, may qualify for special education services if they have one of the the previously listed eligible disabilities or an “established medical disability.” An “established medical disability” is a disabling medical condition or congenital syndrome very likely to require special education services.

In California, children with disabilities younger than three (3) years of age may also qualify for early instruction and intervention. Children younger than three (3) years of age who qualify for early services will receive services from the District only if they have a visual, hearing, or severe orthopedic impairment. All other children in this age range who exhibit developmental delays or have established risk conditions with harmful developmental consequences will receive early intervention services from their local regional center.

The law requires that to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities be educated with children without disabilities. This placement is called “the least restrictive environment.”


The federal definitions guide how states define who is eligible for a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under special education law:

AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER: Is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It also includes restricted repetitive behaviors, interests and activities. These issues cause significant impairment in social, occupational and other areas of functioning.  It is defined as a single disorder that includes disorders that were previously considered separate  – autism, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.

DEAF-BLINDNESS: Concomitant (simultaneous) hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.

DEAFNESS: a hearing impairment so severe that a child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

EMOTIONAL DISTURBANCE: A condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance:

(a) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors; (b) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers; (c) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; (d) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; (e) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have an emotional disturbance.

(Examples:  Anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression)

HEARING IMPAIRMENT: An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but is not included under the definition of “deafness.”

(* Being hard of hearing is not the same thing as having auditory processing disorder)

INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES: Significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently [at the same time] with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

(Note: “Intellectual Disability” is a new term in IDEA. Until October 2010, the law used the term “mental retardation.”)

(Example:  Down Syndrome)

MULTIPLE DISABILITIES: Concomitant (simultaneous) impairments (such as intellectual disability-blindness, intellectual disability-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational needs that they cannot be accommodated in a special education program solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.

ORTHOPEDIC IMPAIRMENT: Severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by a congenital anomaly, impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis), and impairments from other causes.

(Examples: Cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).

OTHER HEALTH IMPAIRMENT: Having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that—

  • (a) is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome;
  • and, (b) adversely affects a child’s educational performance

(Example:  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

SPECIFIC LEARNING DISABILITY: A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

(Examples:  Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Auditory processing disorder, and Nonverbal learning disability)

SPEECH OR LANGUAGE IMPAIRMENT: A communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

(Examples:  Stuttering, impaired articulation, language impairment or voice impairment)

TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY: An acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech.

The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

VISUAL IMPAIRMENT, INCLUDING BLINDNESS: An impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child’s educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.

(Examples: Partial sight and blindness)