Special education provides important services to eligible students. While many students could benefit from the services provided through special education, only those who are deemed eligible by law are entitled to receive the services. In order to be eligible for special education services in Pennsylvania, a student must have a disability and need specially designed instruction in order to access the general curriculum.
What is a Disability?
The first step in deciding whether a particular child is eligible for special education is to determine whether the child has a disability. While not all children with the following disabilities are eligible for special education, a child must have one of the following disabilities in order to qualify. Those legally defined disabilities include:
- mental retardation
- hearing impairment
- speech or language impairment
- visual impairment
- serious emotional disturbance
- orthopedic impairment
- traumatic brain injury
- specific learning disabilities
- Developmental Delays (this disability applies only to children ages 3 -9); and
- Other health problems.
Specific criteria exist to determine if a child has one of the above disabilities. While a medical evaluation may be very influential to determining a hearing impairment or traumatic brain injury other types of disabilities, such as serious emotional disabilities and specific learning disabilities are more difficult to diagnose and must meet the criteria defined in the legal regulations.
When Does a Student Need Specially Designed Instruction?
If a child with one of the above disabilities is able to access the general curriculum, with or without accommodations, then the child is not eligible for special education. For example, if a student has a visual impairment and needs to be seated in the front of the classroom but needs no modifications to the curriculum then that child is not eligible for special education.
However, if the student needs the curriculum content, methodology or delivery of instruction adapted to address the unique needs presented by that child's disability and to ensure the child's access to the general curriculum, then that child needs specialized instruction and is eligible for special education services.
Who Decides if A Child is Eligible for Special Education in Pennsylvania?
As a parent, you may read the above criteria regarding qualifying disabilities and the need for specially designed instruction and think that your child needs special education services. However, eligibility for special education is different than many types of school system supports. You cannot simply sign your child up for services. Instead, the child needs to be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team after you provide your written consent for the evaluation.
The multidisciplinary team consists of the parent, the student if the child is old enough, the general education teacher, special education teacher, relevant therapists and specialists (such as a speech and language pathologist, school psychologist or occupational therapist) and someone from the school district who has the authority to commit district resources (this can be referred to as a Team chairperson, the principal, the guidance counselor or anyone else whom the district appoints with this authority.)
This Team will conduct the appropriate evaluations and then decide if the student will be eligible for special education services. The student will be found eligible for special education if the student has a qualifying disability and needs specially designed instruction in order to access the general curriculum.