A Guide to California Special Education Eligibility Categories

Special Education in California

Special education in California is governed by federal and state law. These laws guarantee that students with disabilities who have exceptional needs can receive special education services at the state’s expense.

However, the child must meet the eligibility criteria provided under the California Education Code to access these services. The criteria in the code mirror the eligible categories of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA).

If you’re wondering whether your child qualifies for special education in California, the critical areas of special education eligibility under the relevant laws have been summarized here, so keep reading if you’d like to learn more.

Who Is Eligible for Special Education in California?


Generally, the eligible age for special education services based on the IDEA is between 3 and 21 years old. However, newborns and toddlers in California may be eligible for early intervention services under the California Early Intervention Services Act.

The Local Education Agency (LEA) determines eligibility for special education in California. The LEA sets up the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, which may also organize professional assessments for the child and determine whether the child requires compensatory education periodically.

For a child to be eligible, the initial assessment report must show that the child requires one or more of the special education programs authorized under state and federal law by the degree of their impairment. This means the impairment must be severe enough to adversely impact the student’s educational performance.

In making their assessment, the IEP team is guided by the categories of impairment recognized under IDEA and, by extension, the state laws of California, including the following:


Autism is a developmental disability that impacts a child’s behavior and educational performance. It could affect the verbal and nonverbal communication of the child to varying degrees.

Social interaction is often limited in children with autism as they are known to engage in repeated, stereotypical activities. Children with autism are also known to resist changes in their routines and environment.

The brains of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) work differently from others which could make it difficult for them to do well in a regular academic setting. So, if you’ve noticed that your child struggles with the regular school routine, you might want to screen them for autism with your healthcare provider. If the results are positive, your child would likely be eligible for special education.


Emotional Disturbance

A child with emotional disturbance will exhibit various characteristics over a long period, including:

  • An inability to learn which is not a result of sensory, intellectual, or health factors
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with others within their environment
  • Inappropriate behaviors or feelings
  • An unhappy or depressed mood
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems

Emotional disturbance adversely affects a child’s academic and social progress hence the need for special education.


Hearing Impairments and Deafness

Children with hearing impairments are typically hard of hearing to varying degrees, with some exhibiting total deafness.

While some children with mild hearing impairments may progress academically with supportive aids, children with extreme deafness are often unable to process linguistic information irrespective of amplification, which negatively affects their educational performance.

Either way, these children qualify for special education in California. However, children with hearing impairments might be unable to participate in regular education classrooms where sign language is not in use.


Intellectual Disability

Intellectual disability can be identified when a child’s general intellectual functioning is significantly below average. This kind of disability often manifests as a developmental delay during the early years.

Children who suffer from intellectual disabilities may sometimes be seen as ‘dull’ or ‘unintelligent,’ but that is often not the case. With special education, the children might be able to function properly in school, and their academic progress would likely improve.


Multiple Disabilities

Multiple disabilities mean a combination of two or more different impairments, such as intellectual disability/blindness or intellectual disability/orthopedic impairment occurring at the same time in one child.

The combined presence of these impairments results in such severe educational needs that cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one impairment.


Severe Orthopedic Impairment

These are severe bone, joint, or muscle-related impairments that adversely affect the child’s education and require special support. They could be caused by a congenital anomaly or disease, such as cerebral palsy or poliomyelitis.


Specific Learning Disability (SLD)

IDEA defines specific learning disabilities to include disorders in one or more of the basic psychological processes that impede the child’s ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.

It includes conditions such as dyslexia, minimal brain dysfunction, brain injury, developmental aphasia, and perceptual disabilities.

However, it does not include learning problems solely resulting from intellectual, visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, emotional disturbance, or any other environmental disadvantage.


Speech or Language Impairment

For a child to be eligible for special education based on a speech or language impairment (SLI), they would need to be assessed by a speech-language pathologist and must be certified as having one of the following:

  • Speech sound disorder
  • Voice disorder
  • Fluency disorder
  • Language disorder
  • Hearing impairment or deafness that results in a language disorder


Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Children with traumatic brain injury are eligible for special education under the IDEA. Traumatic brain injury refers to internal or external head injuries resulting in disabilities in one or more areas, such as attention, memory, cognition, sensory, reasoning, and speech. It does not include congenital or degenerative brain injuries or those caused by birth trauma.

The child may likely require a medical diagnosis to claim eligibility under this head.


Visual Impairment

visually impaired child is functionally blind or has low vision. Such children are eligible and benefit from receiving educational instructions in braille due to their limited vision levels.

Other Health Conditions


The categories of persons eligible for special education in California are restricted to those with the health conditions listed under the IDEA and explained in the California Education Code.

Other common health challenges that a child may have, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), do not qualify the child for special education unless they meet the criteria established under the Act or the education code.


How an Attorney Can Help


The quest for special education for your child could be long and difficult. You may experience pitfalls ranging from wrong assessments, uncooperative teachers or school district officials, disputes, and disagreements about what is best for your child.

In such cases, you might benefit from having a special education lawyer represent you throughout the process.

Your special education attorney can help to lessen your burden in several ways, including :

  • Requesting a special education evaluation on your child’s behalf and completing the necessary paperwork

  • Handling correspondence between you, the school, or the school district

  • Attending evaluation meetings with you or on your behalf and advocating for your child’s rights where necessary

  • Reviewing the terms of any documents you’re asked to sign

  • Filing complaints on your behalf and representing you in court where necessary.

Having a lawyer represent you during the special education process is a viable choice, as it would provide you with solid legal support on an otherwise lonely road.

If you have further questions about the special education process in California and your child’s eligibility, contact the law firm of Brian R. Sciacca, Attorney at Law. We’d be glad to answer your questions and represent you.