Understanding Who Is and Who Is Not Eligible for Special Education

Eligibility is a very confusing concept for most parents trying to negotiate their ways through the bureaucracy of special education. It’s an unfortunate reality that special education has to be regulated in order to make objective determinations as to whether students benefitted from their services or not, but the regulations create what is to some parents seemingly insurmountable barriers to entry.


This is further compounded by an industry-wide (and I am considering public education an industry, here) initiative to intervene before students are so far gone that they actually need special education. On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. If acted upon in good faith, it’s a great idea. Why wait until a child is so far behind that he/she may never catch up Why resort to labeling the child as “disabled” when what’s closer to the truth is that he/she was never taught the way he/she actually learns?


However, far too often, in the name of preventing an unnecessary referral for special education, strategies are attempted in the name of “regular education accommodations” and “Response to Intervention” that aren’t successful. In the end, it becomes apparent in these instances that these “strategies” were nothing more than bad faith delay tactics used in the hopes that the parents would reach the conclusion that their children were beyond help and simply give up.


After all, teaching children who are struggling to master certain concepts is really, really hard. It’s a lot easier simply to not. The employees of the education system get their paychecks either way. This is a deplorable situation for parents and educators who truly care, alike.  Good teachers are constantly fighting an uphill battle to do the right things.  After a while, it’s easy to burn out and give up, leaving behind all the people who are inclined to take the easy path and just not do much of anything.


That said, when it comes right down to it, who is really eligible for special education? It is a misconception that the presence of disability automatically qualifies a child for special education. It does not. A disability must be present in an eligible child, but that by itself is not enough.


There must be a negative educational impact caused by the disability – it must interfere with the child’s learning or participation at school to a significant enough degree that specialized instruction, modifications, accommodations, and possibly related services such as speech-language services and occupational therapy are necessary in order for the child to receive educational benefit.


For more than two decades, everyone has been carrying on about the abysmal standard established by Rowley. Or, more accurately, Rowley has been misrepresented by public schools as meaning they don’t have to do a whole lot. Amy Rowley was passing her classes without the sign language interpreter her parents wanted and could get around school just fine, in spite of her hearing loss.  That really doesn’t speak to the circumstances of a child with learning disabilities and ADHD who is reading three grade levels below his current grade.


There is another case, Mercer Island, in which the appellate decision declared that the Rowley standard of “some educational benefit” and “a basic floor of opportunity” is dead. Rowley was decided in 1982 in light of the predecessor of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), the Education of Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (“EHA”). The EHA was meant simply to give children with disabilities access to the public schools. Prior to the EHA, at least a million children with disabilities were denied enrollment and there was often no programming to meet their educational needs even when they were permitted to attend school. They simply stayed home or spent pointless hours in regular classrooms with no supports waiting for the day when they could drop out.


In 1997, the EHA was replaced with the IDEA. With it came much stronger language about what kinds of outcomes are to be expected. I concur with the findings in Mercer Island for the very obvious reason that the purpose of any education system is to teach students what they need to know so they can take care of themselves as much as is reasonably possible when they grow up. That’s what benefits the children and their families the most. That’s what benefits society the most. (See our posting, “The Big Picture – Special Ed Issues Impact Everyone.)


The need for specialized instruction in order to receive educational benefit (setting aside for the moment how “educational benefit” is exactly defined) on the basis of a handicapping condition is what drives eligibility for special education. This could be something as relatively benign as an articulation disorder that prevents the student from speaking clearly enough to participate effectively in group learning activities with peers, read aloud in class, and/or effectively communicate personal needs or lack of understanding to instructors.  It could be something as severe as quadriplegia that prevents the student from independently navigating a school campus. There are a million ways to be disabled.


However, let’s say we have a child with quadriplegia who has mastered the use of his electric wheelchair and can get anywhere on campus he wants, is intellectually intact without any learning disabilities or emotional problems, and is able to hold his head upright and turn it sufficiently to follow instruction in the classroom. He grasps what the teacher is saying.  And, at most all he needs in his academic classes are accommodations, such as a set of books at home, a set of books at school, note-takers in class, access to a computer with dictation software on it, and assistance using his materials in the school setting in order to participate. Does this child require special education?


I’d argue that for a kid like this, PE is the only part of the curriculum he can’t participate in without specialized instruction and he would qualify on that basis alone, requiring Adaptive PE as his specialized instruction.  I’d also argue that for self-help needs such as eating and toileting, he would probably need a properly qualified 1:1 aide as a related service.


For a child with a disability that impacts his/her receipt of an education and/or participation at school, but who does not need specialized instruction, the solution is a 504 Plan. That’s another blog posting in and of itself. I’m not going to explain 504 right now.


The point I’m trying to make here, particularly to parents, is that special education really is meant for a specific group of kids.The federal regulations are found at 34 CFR 300.8.? Each state has its own additional language, as well. In California, for example, it’s 5 CCR 3030.


There are some parents who think that getting their child into special education will solve everything. That may not be so.  I’ve encountered parents who were simply looking for something to blame- a defect in their child – rather than their own incompetence as parents for their child’s problems.  Sometimes children are just responding to, or role modeling themselves after, the adults around them.


I’ve also encountered parents whose children did have mild problems that fell just short of qualifying them for special education. That’s the thing with the regulations. Somebody is invariably going to almost, but not quite, qualify for special education. The line has to be drawn somewhere. Those are the kids whose parents need to turn to Section 504 and learn as much about it as they can.


But, I’ve also encountered education agencies that didn’t want to admit that they had failed to conduct “child find” for years running, resulting in a failure to find a child eligible who should have been found eligible long ago, thereby denying the child a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). Because these agencies didn’t want to admit fault and were hoping to avoid being held responsible for providing compensatory education to these children, they lied and said these kids weren’t eligible at all and never had been.


A fair amount of litigation arises over eligibility issues. The important thing for parents to understand is that the regulations spell out who and who is not eligible for special education. You need to understand the rules before you go charging off on a mission. State law usually hones the federal law on this issue.


For example, if a clinical psychologist has given a child a DSM-IV diagnosis of dyslexia, that doesn’t mean the child will qualify for special education as having a learning disability, even though dyslexia is a type of learning disability; what matters is that there is a discrepancy between achievement and ability or the child has failed to respond to scientifically research-based interventions in the regular education setting because of the dyslexia, which is a processing disorder. On that basis, the child can qualify for special education as having a learning disability.


Educators need to appreciate that parents often don’t understand this subtle distinction and be kind and helpful to them as they try to navigate the system. Mocking them for not knowing this is simply inappropriate. Being compassionate to the needs of the student and the angst of the parents who are worried about their child’s academic performance is very appropriate.

0 thoughts on “Understanding Who Is and Who Is Not Eligible for Special Education”

  1. For the hypothetical quadriplegic student, I go along with eligibility based on need for APE and the accommodations, self-help needs, and aide that you suggested. I’d say he also needs instruction in self-advocacy starting at a young age, and as he gets older instruction in civii rights and disability rights and how to access them not only in the K-12 arena, but in further education and employment in his adult life. Most teenagers have a lot of independence and get around town on their own to a certain extent, and by the time this student gets to high school, he might also need some life skills training in how to use public transportation for present and lifelong getting around. Chances are he may eventually need some kind of supported living arrangements, so he may need to start learning about services and benefits that he may become entitled to as he turns 18.
    I also wonder about his opportunities for social skills development & meaningful opportunities for inclusion with nondisabled peers at recess/lunch, summer activities, etc.

    1. Daunna,

      I think those are very good points. A lot of it depends on what the outcome of a competent social/emotional, and maybe even pragmatic language, assessment reveals. Certainly as he gets older, and qualifies for a transition plan as part of his IEP, the community access issues and referrals to other agencies that serve adults with disabilities have to be taken into consideration. If this hypothetical youngster is in a state with a regional center system, or something like it, though, such an entity would be responsible for at least some of those kinds of things. At that point, there has to be an examination of what is educationally necessary and what falls on the shoulders of other publicly funded agencies that have an obligation to an adult with these kinds of needs. It gets a lot stickier, then.


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