Special Education Legal Primer

> What is a Disability?

A child is considered “disabled” only after a comprehensive case study evaluation has been conducted by the school and a multidisciplinary conference has been convened. A child is eligible for special education and related services if he or she has one of the following:

Visual Impairment

The child’s visual impairment must interfere with his or her education and require special services.

Hearing Impairment

After corrective measures have been taken (hearing aids, etc.), the child’s hearing must be impaired to the extent that the child cannot understand the spoken word or develop language. Or the child has a hearing loss which limits his or her awareness of environmental sounds and spoken language, limiting normal language development and academic achievement.

Physical and/or Health Impairment

The child must have a temporary or permanent physical or health impairment which interferes with his or her learning and/or which requires adaptation of the physical plant.

Speech and/or Language Impairment

The child exhibits deviations of speech and/or language processes which are outside the range of acceptable deviation within a given environment and which prevent full social or educational development.

Specific Learning Disability

The child exhibits a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. The term specific learning disability does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

Behavior Disorder/Emotional Disorder

The term means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over an extended period of time and to a marked degree, which adversely affects educational performance, even after supportive assistance has been provided. The student must demonstrate an inability to learn which cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, health, cultural, or linguistic factors; an inability to develop or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and adults; or inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances; or a general pervasive mood of anxiety, unhappiness, depression; or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

Mental Impairment

The child’s intellectual development, mental capacity, adaptive behavior, and academic achievement are markedly delayed. Such mental impairment may be mild/moderate, severe, or profound.

Multiple Impairment

The child exhibits two or more impairments, severe in nature or total impact, which significantly affect his or her ability to benefit from the educational program.


The term means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects educational performance. Characteristics of autism include irregularities and impairments in communication, engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not include children with characteristics of the disability of serious emotional disturbance.

Traumatic Brain Injury

The term means an injury to the brain caused by an external physical force or by an internal occurrence such as stroke or aneurysm, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial maladjustments that adversely affect educational performance. The term included open or closed head injuries resulting in mild, moderate, or severe impairments in one or more areas, including cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgement; problem solving; sensory, perceptual and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not include brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

Introduction | Disability | Free and Appropriate Education | Least Restrictive Environment | Special Education | Related Services | Case Study Evaluation | Multidisciplinary Conference | Individualized Education Program (IEP) | Re-evaluation

Referring to this article:
“Special Education Legal Primer for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorders, and Other Educational, Physical, and Cognitive Disabilities” was written by C. J. Newton, MA, and published in the Find Counseling.com (formerly TherapistFinder.net) Mental Health Journal in September, 1997.

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