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What is a diagnosis vs. education disability category?

Health Information

Defining eligibility

Many parents are surprised to find that the “disability category” qualifying their child for special education and related services is different from their “medical diagnosis.” For young children moving from Kentucky Birth to Three System to special education, the criteria that qualified them for early intervention services may not be the same as the criteria that makes them eligible for public pre-school services when they turn 3. The federal law that provides protections for students with disabilities titled IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004, Part B has 13 disability categories that states must use to determine if children, ages 3-21, are eligible to receive special education and related services (such as speech/language, occupational, physical therapies).

IDEA Eligibility Categories

Developmental Delay category

Under IDEA, younger children (ages 3-9) may be eligible for special education and related services under a broader disability category called “Developmental Delay.” States can choose what to call this general category, how they define it and what age range it applies. In Kentucky, this category is called “Developmental Delay.” It is for children aged 3-8 who have general delays in their physical, cognitive, communication, social, emotional or adaptive development; and who, because of these delays, need special education and related services.

It is often difficult to diagnose very young children. With early intervention and appropriate services, children may not need special education by the time the reach kindergarten. The “Developmental Delay” category allows preschoolers to benefit from special education and related services without being labeled with a specific disability.

Additional disability categories

There are 13 disability categories identified in IDEA. However, states can choose how they want to assign disability categories, as long as they cover all of the federal disability terms and definitions. These disability categories are more general in nature than a specific diagnosis. Only a few specific diagnoses are mentioned under federal definitions. Kentucky uses the following disability categories to determine if a child aged 3-21 is eligible for special education and related services:

  • Autism
  • Deaf – Blindness
  • Developmental Delay
  • Emotional Behavior Disorder
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Specific Leaning Disabilities
  • Speech or Language Impaire
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment

Here are some examples:

  • A child with a medical diagnosis of apraxia may qualify for special education under “Speech Impairment.”
  • A child with cerebral palsy qualifies for special education and related services under “Orthopedic Impairment.” Cerebral palsy is the medical diagnosis.

Who decides a child’s disability category? 

The Admissions and Release Committee (ARC) decides if a child is eligible for special education and related services and his/her disability category. This decision is made only after the child has been assessed and evaluated according to state and federal guidelines. Federal regulations state that determination of eligibility must:

  • “Be made by a group or qualified professionals and the parent.”
  • “Draw upon information from a variety of sources, including aptitude and achievement tests, parent input, teacher recommendations, physical conditions, social or cultural background, and adaptive behavior.”

What families need to know 

A disability label should open doors for their children, allowing them access to services – not limit them. When schools assign a child a disability category they are doing this to ensure that a child is eligible to receive education or related services. A child’s disability category should not take away from his or her individual gifts or talents, lower expectations, or affect his or her placement in the general education curriculum.

Schools are required by law to provide a full and individual evaluation of a child referred to special education at no cost to the child’s family. A child may not be labeled a “child with a disability” because of limited English proficiency.

Parents should recognize that a medical diagnosis does not guarantee a child will qualify for special education services.

Adapted from “Categories of Disabilities under IDEA Law”.