Wednesday, June 30, 2010

So Misunderstood! Category of Disability Part I

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Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or "IDEA," the category of disability plays one role only. To be eligible for special education and related services, a child must first have one of the enumerated disabilities and "by reason thereof" be in need of special education. IDEA Section 602(3).

That's it. Period. End of discussion.

Yet I have talked to many special education professionals who believe that services are determined by the category of disability. Once again, this is not correct. Once a child is eligible for special education and related services, she is eligible. Period. The question becomes what are the child's educational needs, {Needs too is a term of art -the question is what does the child need in order to achieve some (meaningful) educational benefit.}

Despite this small bit of clarity in the metaphysical realm that is special education law, I have had whole hearings where all parties agreed that the child was eligible under one category of disability, but the parents also wanted her "labeled" autistic. I kept asking what it mattered, but to no avail. Similarly I have seen school districts that have certain services only available to those children in the autism program, etc.

The notion of treating whole groups of people the same is inconsistent with the concept of individuality embodied in IDEA. Let's keep the "I" in IDEA and IEP! Indeed, the idea that it would be right to treat groups of people exactly the same because they share a category of disability is rooted in stereotyping. Stereotyping underlies most types of discrimination. Each child with a disability is an individual, and their individual needs , rather than their category of disability, should drive their educational program.

In the next post in this series, we will look at some of the caselaw on this issue.


  1. I've been reading your blog for a while, but haven't commented before. This post really struck me - as a parent of a child with Down syndrome. The district where we live has long held to an unspoken rule that "those children go over there" - to a life skills program that only exists at one building. Advocacy has brought them a step or two forward, and resulted in a great program for my child, but changing that paradigm district-wide is proving very difficult. I would love to hear your thoughts on moving districts out of this mentality.

    I enjoy your blog, thanks!


  2. Amy,

    thanks for your comment and for reading the blog.

    As an impartial (mediator, hearing officer and state consultant) I do not advise parents or school districts.

    Maybe some our readers have some thoughts or reponses to your comment.

    Thanks again,


  3. Gaskin settlement in PA, but took 12 years to happen.

    go the iee route

    and, how's your child supposed to go to college if segregated all these years?

  4. Anon,

    Thanks for your comment.


  5. Amy: have you connected with other parents? -check for local National Downs Syndrome chapter or Parent to Parent.I've found over the years that working together is the only way to go: you can get politicians' notice, you can identify hurdles others have encountered, and you can id which of the local administrators are simpatico and which are clueless jerks. BTW, the National Downs Syndrome Society is a great source for peer-reviewed studies which will support your position: atwo-pringed approach of anecdotal and academic is the best tactic. Parents can be dismissed as too emotional, academics can be dismissed as too removed (ivory tower vs where the rubber meets the road).

  6. Anon,

    Thanks for the suggestions and your comment.