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The Range of Special Education Disabilities

When talking about special education students, there’s a wide range of disability levels to consider. Special education disability categories can range from a mild learning disability to more severe physical or emotional disability. An online master's degree in special education instructional specialist can be a way for you to prepare yourself for the range of students you could work with in the classroom.

Categories of Disability According to IDEA

The Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, defines what constitutes a child with disability under law. It guides how states define who is eligible for free appropriate public education under special education law. IDEA breaks down disabilities into 14 specific categories. With each category, the range of disability can be mild to severe. Students can also qualify for more than one category when they are under the special education umbrella. The special education disability categories are autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, developmental delay, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech impairment, traumatic brain injury and visual impairment including blindness.

Mild/Moderate Disabilities

If a student can be part of the general education classroom, their disability can range from mild to moderate. Students with more mild or moderate disabilities range from specific learning disabilities, like struggling in reading or math, to speech impairment where the student needs speech therapy for pronunciation issues. These students can normally function within a general classroom setting with accommodations or an inclusion teacher. Even a physical disability, such as a hearing impairment or health impairment, can be mild. A student with a hearing impairment might just need a hearing device to hear in the classroom, but may not need any other accommodations to succeed. Typically, a general education teacher will have students who fall in the mild/moderate special education disability category.

Moderate/Severe Disabilities

If a special education student has a disability that hinders them from being around others unaccompanied by a teacher, they could fall into the more severe disability category. Students with more severe disabilities are often in special programs within the school. These students might have disabilities ranging from severe physical limitations, emotional disturbances or extreme developmental delays. They normally would stay in one room for the majority of the school day, changing rooms for electives, special P.E. and lunch. A master’s degree in special education can help you understand ideas and practices to use within the classroom to help your students.


Students who fall within the autism spectrum can have cases that range from mild to severe. The autism umbrella ranges from students with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Asperger's syndrome or autism. Students with PDD-NOS and Asperger's generally can function within a normal classroom setting with some accommodations. Students who have been diagnosed with autism can also be in general education classrooms and be successful with accommodations and boundaries. However, some students with autism need a more structured environment and might be placed in a small classroom with more special education teachers per student. These more severe students normally require structure and boundaries and rules to be successful.

For students with disabilities, there's not a set standard for where they would fall. You could have one student with autism in a general education classroom, and there could be another student with autism who has to be in a special education classroom for the entire day. What is important is to read and understand each student’s individualized education program (IEP) to fully understand what the students' needs are and how, as a teacher, you can meet those needs.

Learn more about the A-State online MSE Special Ed program.


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