Discussions about students with disabilities sometimes seem to be contradictory. As you read this article and learn from your instructor and classmates, you will hear again and again that the specific disability labels students carry are not particularly important and that understanding students as unique individuals is what will help you be successful in teaching them. At the same time, students are labeled according to the 13 federal disability categories.

The former perspective is very true, but the latter is important, too. Federal special education currently provides funding for the costs of educating students with disabilities based on their identification within the 13 categories. Using disability labels also ensures that students' civil rights will be protected-rights that can extend throughout their lifetimes. So although you should not rely on labels to guide your perceptions of and decisions about students, labels currently have a function. Perhaps in the future, the benefits they provide will be made available and their often stigmatizing effects avoided. The categories of disabilities students must have in order to receive special education are summarized in the chart below.

Categories of Disability in Federal Special Education Law

Federal Disability Term Alternative Terms Brief Description
Learning disability (LD) Specific learning disability A disorder related to processing information that leads to difficulties in reading, writing, and computing; the most common disability, accounting for half of all students receiving special education.
Speech or language impairment Communication disorder (CD) A disorder related to accurately producing the sounds of language or meaningfully using language to communicate.
Mental retardation (MR) Intellectual disability, cognitive impairment Significant limitations in intellectual ability and adaptive behavior; this disability occurs in a range of severity.
Emotional disturbance (ED) Behavior disorder (BD). emotional disability Significant problems in the social-emotional area to a degree that learning is negatively affected.
Autism Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) A disorder characterized by extraordinary difficulty in social responsiveness; this disability occurs in many different forms and may be mild or significant.
Hearing impairment Deaf, hard of hearing (DHH) A partial or complete loss of hearing.
Visual impairment Low vision, blind A partial or complete loss of vision.
Deaf-blindness   A simultaneous significant hearing loss and significant vision loss.
Orthopedic impairment (0I) Physical disability A significant physical limitation that impairs the ability to move or complete motor activities.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI)   A medical condition denoting a serious brain injury that occurs as a result of accident or injury; the impact of this disability varies widely but may affect learning, behavior, social skills, and language.
Other health impairment (OHI)   A disease or health disorder so significant that it negatively affects learning; examples include cancer, sickle-cell anemia, and diabetes.
Multiple disabilities   The simultaneous presence of two or more disabilities such that none can be identified as the primary disability; the most common example is the occurrence of mental retardation and physical disabilities.
Developmental delay (DD)   A nonspecific disability category that states may choose to use as an alternative to specific disability labels for identifying students up to age 9 needing special education.