Disability Categories

The U.S. Department of Education currently classifies students in special education into one or more disability categories. Follow the links below to get the definition and learn more about incidence, characteristics, impact on learning, teaching strategies, and assistive technologies for each disability category. A list of organizations and resources is also provided.

Disability Categories


The foundational premise of special education, that all children with disabilities have a right to a free and appropriate public education designed to meet the unique learning and developmental needs of the student, continues to stand firm since its formal beginning in 1975. During that time, special education has served millions of students with disabilities across the nation while evolving into its current state where students are overwhelmingly served in general education classrooms along with their nondisabled peers. It is for that reason that this module was developed, for general educators and special educators alike, as an introduction to the types of students served within special education.

Within this module, you will find descriptions of the thirteen disability categories recognized by federal legislation. Each disability section provides a basic definition, general characteristics of the disability group, and the impact of the disability on learning. The sections also provide an overview to basic teaching strategies for students with specific disabilities, a list of assistive technology devices that are unique to each disability, and a list of reliable organizations that may be used as resources. The intent of this module is to provide a general overview of special education as a whole and provide resources for general educators to conduct more in-depth research for the specific students that they teach.

Read Introduction to Special Education Public Policy

Learning Outcomes

  1. Identify categories of disabilities as identified by the US Department of Education
  2. Identify characteristics unique to each of the thirteen disabilities presented
  3. Identify the impact of a disability on the learning process
  4. Describe basic teaching strategies for each category of disability as identified by the US Department of Education
  5. Identify and describe the possible forms of assistive technology that may be appropriate for each disability category
  6. Develop possible interventions and/or modifications that can be used to efficiently integrate students with these disabilities into the general education setting
  7. Investigate various resources to help general educators understand and accommodate students with disabilities
  8. Utilize services and resources provided by various disability-specific organizations
  9. Generalize information to case studies by making recommendations for students with special needs

Accommodations and Modifications for Classroom Teachers

Learn about Accommodations and Modifications for Classroom Teachers


Of these classifications, the two largest are specific learning disabilities (47.4%) and speech or language impairments (18.7%). Note also that there is not a specific category for students diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder; these students are grouped into the general category of other health impairment.