Who is eligible for Special Education Services?

If you tell someone your child is in "special ed" you know what they're thinking--this child must be a slow learner. But "special ed" encompasses so much more. In fact, the Federal law that provides for educational services for these children identifies 13 classes of disability and one "catch all" classification where a child is too young for the nature of the disability to be well-defined.

Of course children who suffer from mental retardation are the traditional "special ed" population. But did you know that a gifted student can also be "special ed" when they are also autistic or have another associated disability? So the therm "special ed" can cover a wide range of abilities and disabilities and if you child is struggling in school, you need to consider seeking "special education" services.

Some of the disability conditions are self-explanatory. A student may be blind, hearing impaired or have some type of severe orthopedic impairment. Less obvious is that group of students clustered under the classifications of "other health impaired," "emotionally disturbed" or "developmentally delayed." Who are these children?

The Federal law that protects these children (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act--or IDEA) has fairly comprehensive definitions. For example, other health impaired students are children who may have attention deficit disorder, epilepsy, lead poisoning, and other medical conditions which result in limited strength, vitality or alertness. If a student has one of these conditions but is doing fine educationally--he is not a special education student. But if these conditions are affecting his educational performance, he is a special education student and is entitled to special services.

The law also provides special protection for children ages 3 through 9 who are experiencing development delays in physical, cognitive, communication, social or emotional development. Sometimes the delays can be evident but the reasons for the delays are obscure. Rather than attempting to force a traditional special education label on them (i.e.: autism, mental retardation) these children can obtain services under the "developmental delay" category.

The first step is identification. Is your child a "special education" student and is he eligible for special services. If you suspect that your child may qualify, make a written referral to the special education coordinator at your school. The schools have a referral form that you can use, or you can simply write a letter. Let the school know the area of disability you suspect--or if you are not sure, just describe your concerns to them. The school then must decide whether to test the student or not.

Generally, the school will conduct the requested assessment. You are entitled to see the results of that assessment. The school will make a decision as to whether your child is eligible for services. If you disagree with the school's conclusion, you can review the results of those assessments with your own educational consultant or an attorney knowledgeable in the area of special education. You can challenge the system's eligibility decision through a request for a hearing filed with the State Superintendent of Education. Before you go that route though, you need to have your "ducks in a row" on he eligibility issue. Your personal opinion on the issue is not sufficient, you need to have educational experts who agree with your analysis.

Why go through all of this? The goal is to seek additional services and/or modifications in the curriculum and/or teaching strategies to allow your child to have a successful educational experience.

Susan Shirock DePaola, J.D., Ed.D.