13 Disability Categories Covered Under IDEA for Special Education


There are 13 disability categories covered under IDEA for Special Education. When it comes to determining eligibility and qualifying for special education, there are a few things you need to know:

  • Not every student with a disability qualifies for special education
  • To be eligible for special education, a student MUST fall into one of the 13 disability categories that fall under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)
  • PLUS, they have to show a true need for specially designed instruction due to the fact that they are unsuccessful at progressing through the general education curriculum.

There are 13 specific disability categories listed and covered under IDEA. In order to be considered for special education eligibility, a student MUST fall into one of those 13 disability categories.

13 Disability Categories

  1. Autism: A developmental disability characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors.
  2. Deaf-blindness: A combination of vision and hearing impairments that cause significant communication and other developmental and educational needs.
  3. Deafness: A hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification.
  4. 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: An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors, an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers, inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances, a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression, or a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.
  5. Hearing impairment: An impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance but that is not included under the definition of “deafness”.
  6. Intellectual disability: Significantly below 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.
  7. Multiple disabilities: Concurrent 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.
  8. Orthopedic Impairment: A severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
  9. 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, and sickle cell anemia; and (B) adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
  10. 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 an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
  11. Speech or language impairment: A communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.

In addition to falling into one of these specific disability categories, there must also be collected data and evidence to show that the student is not making sufficient progress through the general education curriculum due to the disability categories. Typically this will involve data collected from the classroom teacher- documenting what interventions have been implemented, repeated assessments showing a lack of improvement, plus any additional data required by the eligibility team. This data shows whether or not the student requires specially designed instruction to access the general education curriculum.

Students who have a disability, yet whose disability is not negatively impacting their ability to progress through the general education curriculum do not meet the eligibility requirements for special education.

If you suspect your child or student of having a disability that is impeding their progression through the general education curriculum, speak to the special education team about your concerns.


Understanding the intricacies of the IDEA disability categories and the eligibility requirements for special education is essential for ensuring that students receive the support they need. It is important to recognize that not all students with disabilities will qualify for special education services; their eligibility hinges on both their classification under one of the 13 disability categories and a demonstrable need for specially designed instruction due to insufficient progress in the general education curriculum.

This dual requirement underscores the necessity of comprehensive data collection and careful documentation of each student’s educational performance and response to interventions. If you believe that a child is struggling to progress because of a disability, initiating a conversation with the special education team is a crucial step toward securing the appropriate evaluations and support. By working collaboratively, educators and parents can advocate effectively for the necessary resources to help every student achieve their full potential.

Read more about disability categories:

Emotional Disability



4 Functions of Behavior

Preventing Behavior

Behavior PD for your school

6 PD opportunities

Books About Disabilities for Children

Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner