Categories of Disabilities
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Module 1: Introduction to Special Education

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Categories of Disabilities

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There are several categories of disabilities ranging from a mild learning disability to a severe intellectual disability. Describing the exact nature of students’ disabilities can be difficult. Part of the reason for this is because disabilities are essentially ambiguous.

Naming and describing ‘types’ of them implies that disabilities are relatively fixed, stable and distinct, like different kinds of fruit or vegetables.

As many teachers discover, though, the reality is somewhat different. The behaviour and qualities of a particular student with a disability can be hard to categorise. The student may be challenged not only by the disability, but also by experiences common to all students, disabled or not.

Any particular disability, furthermore, poses problems more in some situations than in others.

Examples:
1. A student with a reading difficulty may have trouble in a language arts class but not in a physical education class.
2. A student with a hearing impairment may have more trouble ‘hearing’ a topic that he dislikes compared to one that he likes.

As official descriptions of types or categories of disabilities overlook these complexities, they risk stereotyping the real, live people to whom they are applied (Green, et al., 2005). The simplifications might not be a serious problem if the resulting stereotypes are complimentary, e.g. most people would not mind being called a ‘genius’ even if the description is not always true.

Stereotypes about disabilities, however, are usually stigmatising, not complimentary.

Categories of disabilities do serve useful purposes by giving teachers, parents and other professionals a language or frame of reference for talking about disabilities. They can also help educators when arranging special support services for students, since a student has to ‘have’ an identifiable, nameable need if professionals are to provide help.

Educational authorities have therefore continued to use categories (or ‘labels’) to classify disabilities in spite of expressing continuing concern about whether the practice hurts students’ self-esteem or standing in the eyes of peers (Biklen & Kliewer, 2006).

For classroom teachers, the best strategy may be simply to understand how categories of disabilities are defined, while also keeping their limitations in mind and being ready to explain their limitations to parents or others who use the labels inappropriately.

The disabilities encountered by teachers most frequently are:
• Learning Disabilities
• Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
• Intellectual Disabilities
• Behavioural Disorders
• Physical Disabilities and Sensory Impairments

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