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Many students with disabilities have difficulty reading and accessing standard print-based learning materials, such as textbooks and related printed core materials. Learn more about how decision-making teams consider the functional impact of the disability in developing the student’s educational program and in selecting and using accessible instructional materials when needed. Find information about available resources.

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Table of Contents

  1. The Legal Context
  2. General Resources for All Disability Categories
  3. Functional Disability Categories


The Legal Context

Categories of Disability Under IDEA

There are 13 specific categories of disability named in the definition of a child with a disability and each category is specifically defined in the Opens new
windowIndividuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In addition, states have the latitude to define the term “developmental disability” for a child with a disability aged three through nine within the parameters stipulated.

Children with a disability

a) General. (1) Child with a disability means a child evaluated in accordance with §§ 300.304 through 300.311 as having mental retardation, a hearing impairment (including deafness), a speech or language impairment, a visual impairment (including blindness), a serious emotional disturbance (referred to in this part as ‘‘emotional disturbance’’), an orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, an other health impairment, a specific learning disability, deaf blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.”

(b) Children aged three through nine experiencing developmental delays. Child with a disability for children aged three through nine (or any subset of that age range, including ages three through five), may, subject to the conditions described in § 300.111(b), include a child— (1) Who is experiencing developmental delays, as defined by the State and as measured by appropriate diagnostic instruments and procedures, in one or more of the following areas: Physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development; and (2) Who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.

34 C.F.R. § 300.8

The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs’ web site, Opens new
windowBuilding the Legacy: IDEA 2004, provides the definitions of the specific disability categories as stated in IDEA in a user friendly format.

Intellectual Disability Replaces Mental Retardation

References in federal statutes to "mental retardation" have been replaced with the term "intellectual disabilities." On October 10, 2010, President Obama signed “Rosa's Law,” S. 2781, which affects federal laws including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Higher Education Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. The bill does not change determination of the disability or affect any types of coverage or rights. Changes to state laws and regulations are not affected.

Functional Implications of the Disability

One of the complexities of IDEA is that in order for a student to receive special education and related services, the student’s individual education program (IEP) team must determine that the student is a “child with a disability” under the specific disability categories as defined. The utility and continued use of the disability categories has long been debated as the functional impact of the disability on instruction is what is crucial to consider in making educational programming decisions. Students within disability categories often differ significantly and the extent of the disability can range from mild to severe. As a part of establishing what constitutes a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for a student identified as having a disability, IEP teams are required to determine the special education and related services needed based on the unique needs of the child as a result of the disability and not based on the disability category.

Similarly, determining if a student requires accessible instructional materials and which materials and supports are needed is based on the individual needs and abilities of the student, the environments in which the student will be working, and the tasks the student will be expected to accomplish.

Legal Right to Accessible Instructional Materials

In addition to IDEA, state education agencies (SEAs) and local education agencies (LEAs) may have a responsibility to provide accessible instructional materials to qualified students when needed as provided by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Both Section 504 and the ADA provide broad prohibition against discrimination based on disability. Section 504 obligates schools to provide FAPE to qualified students. Title II requires that public agencies provide auxiliary aids and services when needed and ensure that communications with qualified individuals with disabilities are as effective as communications with others.

General Resources for All Disability Categories

The AIM Navigator

For detailed information about the student centered decision-making process specifically related to accessible instructional materials, refer to the AIM Navigator. The AIM Navigator is an interactive, online tool that facilitates the process of decision-making around accessible instructional materials for an individual student. The four major decision points in the process include 1) determination of need, 2) selection of format(s), 3) acquisition of format(s), and 4) selection of supports for use. The AIM Navigator also includes a robust set of guiding questions and useful references and resources specifically related to each decision point. Different levels of support scaffolds are built-in, so that teams can access information at the level needed to assist them in making informed, accurate decisions.

State Resource Lists

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The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) compiles disability-related resources for each state. This comprehensive resource will assist with locating organizations and agencies within your state that address disability-related issues, such as state resource lists, state agencies serving children and youth with disabilities, state chapters of disability organizations and parent groups, and parent training and information projects.

National Organization Gateway

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The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) offers brief, but detailed fact sheets on specific disabilities. Each fact sheet defines the disability, describes its characteristics, offers tips for parents and teachers, and links with related information and organizations with special expertise in that disability.

Disability Fact Sheets

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The National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY) provides a portal for connecting with the many national disability organizations and publicly funded information resource centers available. All offer detailed information in their area of disability or health expertise. Visit their websites to learn more, download publications, and find their most relevant links to others, including any state and local chapters they operate.

Relevant Scholarly Articles

Accessible Textbooks in the K–12 Classroom (2010 Revision): An Educator’s Guide to the Acquisition of Alternate Format Core Learning Materials for Pre-K–12 Students with Print Disabilities

This guide, originally published in 2006 and updated by the National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials, is designed to provide educators and families with effective strategies for acquiring and using accessible, specialized format versions of print instructional materials in the classroom.

Accessible Textbooks in the K-12 Classroom II: Selecting Specialized Formats

This document, updated in 2010, is the third in a series related to accessible instructional materials and provides suggested guidelines for administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals for determining which specialized formats (and which tools to access them and exploit their flexibility) are best suited to a given student's print-related challenges.

Curriculum Access for Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities: The Promise of UDL (2011 Revision)

Equal access to the general education curriculum implies that all students have the right to strive for the same educational goals. Equal opportunity implies that accommodations are in place to remove or minimize the impact of disability on authentic performance, thus leveling the playing field. In this updated, in-depth treatment of the topic, accessible instructional materials (AIM) and other key issues are discussed within the context of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). (Access the previous version of this paper at its archive page.)

Functional Disability Categories

For purposes of efficacy, the disability categories can be grouped in three broad categories of functional disability which are (1) sensory impairments such as visual or hearing impairments and (2) physical or motor impairments, and (3) cognitive disabilities.

Sensory: Blind and Low Vision

Acquire information and resources specific to the functional impact of visual impairments.

Sensory: Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Acquire information and resources specific to the functional impact of hearing impairments.

Cognitive Disabilities

Acquire information and resources specific to the functional impact of cognitive disabilities.

Physical Disabilities

Acquire information and resources specific to the functional impact of physical disabilities.



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Last Updated: 11/26/2013

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