In special education law, there occasionally is some confusion among parents as to what it means to be a child with a disability. An important thing to understand is that the definition is quite broad.
A child with a disability is one with cognitive disabilities, hearing impairments, speech or language impairments, visual impairments, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments or specific learning disabilities. This is the definition under 20 U.S.C. 1402(3), which is part of IDEA — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As you can see, there is a range of disabilities that can qualify a kid for receiving services.
The definition under Section 504 of the Rehabilitiation Act is even more broad. Under that law, a person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the person’s major life activites. Even going beyond that, a person can be protected under 504 if there is a belief that there is an impairment. 34 C.F.R. Part 104.3(j).
In order to receive services under IDEA or 504, having a disability is not sufficient. Rather, a student must have both a disability and a need for services. For example, if a student has been diagnosed with ADD but is a superstar in school and doesn’t need service, then he or she may not be eligible — or need — special education services. However, if a primary reason that student is succeeding is because of special education support, then the student should continue receiving services.