The disability label does not matter….except when it does.

Many court cases hold that the identification of a student’s special education label is not that big of a deal. As long as the district provides appropriate services to the student, it usually does not make much difference which disability category the district has placed the student in.  But as usual, for every “general rule” there is the exception.

A district in California learned that lesson when it concluded that a student’s hearing loss made the child eligible in the “speech or language disorder” category.  The district considered a second category, but concluded that the student did not qualify as hearing impaired because, with her hearing aids, she could hear adequately.  The court held that this was a mistake.

There are two important lessons here.  First, there are two IDEA categories that address hearing loss.  A student qualifies as “deaf” if the loss is so severe that, even with amplification, the child’s educational performance is adversely affected.  In other words, hearing aids do not help a deaf student very much.  However, a student can qualify as “hearing impaired” with a loss that is permanent, or fluctuating, that adversely affects performance, but is not severe enough to qualify as “deafness.” The court concluded that this student should have been considered for eligibility as “hearing impaired” even though she was not deaf.

Why does that matter? After all, the school did qualify the student, and did provide appropriate services. So why should the label matter? That’s the second lesson of this case.  The court pointed out that there are special provisions in the law for students identified either as “hearing impaired” or as “deaf.” Those special provisions directly address the content of the student’s IEP:

“In the case of a child who is deaf or hard of hearing,” the IEP must “consider the child’s language and communication needs, opportunities for direct communications with peers and professional personnel in the child’s language and communication mode, academic level, and full range of needs.”

So when the child might meet the definition of “deaf” or “hearing impaired” the district should specifically evaluate for the condition and make a decision. It matters.

The case is S.P. v. East Whittier City School District, decided by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on June 1, 2018. We found it at 72 IDELR 88.


 The teacher’s behavior was “jarring” but not discriminatory.