On more than one occasion a parent has come to see me to discuss whether his/her child has a disability and is thus entitled to receive special education. It’s one thing for a parent or even the child’s doctor to say that the child has a disability. This, however, is not enough. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) creates an entire process called an “initial evaluation” to determine whether the child is a “child with a disability” within the meaning of the law.
The first step in the process is the parent’s request for an initial evaluation of the child. The local education agency (LEA) then has 60 days to complete the evaluation. The evaluation requires that the LEA “use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather … information, including information provided by the parent.” Parents would be well advised to gather and present any documentation including reports, letters and even their own written description of their child’s problems. The purpose of this information is to help determine “whether the child is a child with a disability” and “the content of the child’s individualized education program [IEP].”
Here we get to the crux of the matter: What is “a child with a disability”? It is a child
(i) with intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this chapter as “emotional disturbance”), orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities; and
(ii) who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.
Initially we are concerned with (i); the disability itself. One such disability, “other health impairments”, is somewhat of a catchall and can include such disabilities as ADD/ADHD. Another, “specific learning disabilities”, is itself defined; the only disability which has its own definition:
"The term 'specific learning disability' means a disorder in 1 or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations."
The law then goes on to list some specific ones that are included, such as dyslexia, and others that are excluded.
Part (ii) of the definition of a “child with a disability” is whether because of this disability, the child needs special education and related services. Take a child with ADD. Yes, this child has a disability, but with preferential seating and extended time to take tests, he may not need special education.
In a word the child has a disability if the LEA says he or she has one. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to show the LEA that your child, in fact, has a disability and that he or she needs special education to get educational benefit from attending school.