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Expert Q&A

What are your rights if your child has a learning disability but does not meet the school’s criteria to receive services?

Dear Mr. Cohen,

It has taken me over three years to get my 11-year-old daughter to be formally tested for a learning disability (dyslexia). I was only able to do so by paying to send her to a private school. On her first day, the teacher called me to ask me about my daughter and if she had been checked. I told her I had several meetings via phone and in person regarding my concerns, but was told my daughter did not need it. Fortunately, my daughter was tested and was -1.1. In my state a child must be -1.7 to receive any extra help in learning.

Every day is a struggle for my daughter, who is bright and learns by memory and tests orally now that we know where her strengths are. My concern is I cannot get any assistance for her because she is not in the county school’s range and I can no longer afford private schooling. Public school will not recognize her needs due to her score and I cannot accept my daughter having a lesser education simply because she is not within the school’s guidelines but clearly shows she does have a learning disorder. What can I do as a parent to help my child have a quality education versus just barely getting by and/or slipping through the cracks?

Thank you for your time and assistance.


Dear Lisa:

Your question raises a painful, but important, problem with respect to children who fall through the cracks, because they have a level of impairment which affects their functioning at school, but may not meet the eligibility criteria for the school system. First, without knowing the specific regulations for LD of your state or your school district, you should be aware that most eligibility criteria include some mechanism for exercising subjective judgment to conclude that a child’s impairment, even if not sufficiently discrepant from a statistical standpoint, nonetheless has a sufficient impact to warrant the provision of LD services. You should check your state’s criteria for learning disabilities and request a copy of your school district’s policy, in order to determine what the subjective factors are in making the eligibility determination. If, as I suspect is the case, there is some “fudge” factor built in to the eligibility process, you may make the argument that the level of need warrants services even in the absence of technical qualification.

In addition, you should be aware that under the new IDEA Reauthorization, effective July of 2005, schools are no longer required to use the discrepancy formula for purposes of determining eligibility for special education. Instead, they may provide research-based reading and other learning intervention in order to assess how the child responds to systematic reading instruction. If the child has difficulty despite the provision of research-based instruction, the child may qualify for special education services even in the absence of satisfying a pre-existing discrepancy requirement.

In addition, you should be aware that the new IDEA requires schools to address not only the child’s academic difficulties as measured by achievement tests, but also to address the child’s functional difficulties. It is apparent that many children with learning disabilities have functional problems with reading, even if they don’t meet the technical criteria for learning disabilities. While I believe that the inclusion of functional impairment is undefined in the law, the intention of its inclusion was to address not only how the child responded with respect to academic tasks, but how their disability affected their day-to-day functioning at school. If a child has difficulty with reading, whether decoding, fluency, comprehension, or in other ways, and that functionally limits his or her ability to participate successfully, or causes them difficulties in terms of fatigue or self-esteem, that may well be a basis for services even if the child doesn’t technically meet criteria as having a learning disability.

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