There is so much about special education that can be confusing and overwhelming. Special education eligibility is an area that I often see parents getting misinformed which makes things even more confusing and overwhelming!
Not only is special education eligibility guided by a lot of federal and state laws, but it also happens at the BEGINNING of the process, and the beginning is when there is so much new information that families are trying to digest at once, often leaving them feeling like their heads are spinning.
Looking for more information? Download the Answers to the Top 20 Questions about Special Education.
Special Education Eligibility: The 5 Questions You Didn’t Know to Ask
A parent once shared with me that by the time she was sitting down for their first IEP meeting to discuss whether or not her son was eligible for special education, she had already been to the very worst place in her own mind and back again and the process hadn’t even started yet. It doesn’t have to be like this!
So let me try to clear up some of the misinformation that is out there and make this a little easier for you as the parent.
Question 1: Are special education eligibility and a medical diagnosis the same thing?
NO! This is often the most confusing fact about special education eligibility.
Special education eligibility is guided by a federal law named the Individuals with Disability Act (IDEA). The law clearly defines and includes criteria for what needs to be present in order for a student to be eligible for special education.
A diagnosis, on the other hand, is a medical term that is given by medical professionals. An educator can’t give a diagnosis and a medical professional can’t find a student eligible for special education. The criterion are very different for each case.
Question 2: What determines whether my child is eligible for special education or not?
As I said above, federal law actually determines what criteria a student needs to meet in order to be eligible for special education under one of the 13 disability categories. Having the information from outside assessors can be very helpful to an IEP team, but it will not override a school’s responsibility to ensure that students meet the criteria laid out in IDEA. Keep in mind that each student is an individual. It is the teams’ responsibility to consider all of the information gathered. Eligibility should NOT be determined by standardized test scores alone!
Question 3: What are the areas that my child can be eligible in?
The 13 disability categories are:
- Emotional disturbance
- Hearing impairment
- Intellectual disability
- Multiple disabilities
- Orthopedic impairment
- Other health impairment (OHI)
- Specific learning disability
- Speech or language impairment
- Traumatic brain injury
- Visual impairment, including blindness
Question 4: Isn’t it a given that if my child has a diagnosis from a doctor that they will be eligible for special education?
As confusing as this may sounds, the answer is NO! The reason for this is that IDEA is actually a “two-prong” approach.
The first “prong” is that a student has to meet the criteria to be classified in at least one of the disability categories. (See above).
The second “prong” is where things can get messy because a child must require or need special education. This means that a child not only needs to meet the criteria for disability, but also needs to require special education in order to access their learning. For example, a student may meet the eligibility criteria for Other Health Impaired due to having ADHD. However, if that child is succeeding in school without any specialized services, they will not be eligible.
Question 5: Does the eligibility area matter?
This is a question for the ages… but I will tell you the answer is (and should be) no! Neither goals nor services should be dependent or determined by a student’s eligibility. I often tell parents that eligibility merely opens the door to special education and then a student’s individualized deficits and needs should drive the goals and services. For example: a student might be eligible under the area of a learning disability but also need help with social skills and attention.
A school team should never have goals or services that are “disability specific”. I encourage families not to get “stuck” on the eligibility category, but to focus on the child’s individual needs!
Don’t Go it Alone
Special education assessment can be one of the most confusing and overwhelming parts of the special education process. You don’t need to do this alone! If you are ready for someone to help you navigate the maze of special education assessment and eligibility, I’ve got your back! Contact me for more information.