IEP Eligibility

Eligibility Categories

Wisconsin identifies eleven eligibility categories under which a child can be determined eligible for an IEP. These categories are Wisconsin’s interpretation of the thirteen eligibility categories listed in IDEA 2004. The categories are:

  • educational autism
  • intellectual disabilities
  • emotional behavioral disabilities
  • hearing impairment
  • other health impairment
  • significant developmental delay
  • speech/language impairments
  •  specific learning disabilities
  • traumatic brain injury
  • visual impairments

A child only needs to meet criteria for one of these categories in order to be eligible for an IEP, but it is also possible for a child to meet criteria for more than one category.

Your child can be found eligible under more than one category if they meet the criteria for multiple categories. If this is the case, the IEP team must determine which category is “primary”. By indicating that one category is primary, the IEP team is saying that this category of disability is the one having the greatest impact on the child’s learning, even if the other areas are also having an impact.

Theoretically, the eligibility category of your child’s IEP shouldn’t matter very much. The IEP is legally required to be an individualized document, so whatever the category, the IEP is required to include services and accommodations that are specifically tailored to your child. 

No IEP category automatically excludes or includes certain services or supports, and parents play an important role in determining how their child is supported in school - all options should be added or not based on what your child actually needs. In practice, you may run into an IEP team that is not considering the full range of services because of the eligibility category. This makes it important for you, as the parent/caregiver, to feel confident knowing what types of services and supports are available. 

Manifestation determination

Another time that the eligibility category of an IEP can come into play is if a manifestation determination becomes necessary. Because of safeguards like the manifestation determination, it is very important for the complexities of your child’s disability to be clearly documented within their IEP. If all aspects of the disabilities affecting your child are not represented and documented, it makes it easier for school staff to try and claim that behavior your child has exhibited is not directly linked to your child’s disability. One way to ensure your child’s disability is fully represented is to ensure that they are found eligible under all the applicable eligibility categories.

Many parents have concerns about the impact of the different “labels” on staff’s perception of their child. For instance, parents may feel differently about having their child labeled with “other health impairment” versus “emotional behavioral disability”. The IEP team is required to consider your concerns and recommendations as part of the process of developing the IEP, and it can be very useful to have prior knowledge of the different eligibility categories before walking into your child’s initial evaluation so that you can already have an idea of which category (or categories) your child may be eligible for.

Categories and disabilities

What types of disabilities tend to fall under which category?


Students who have Autism Spectrum Disorder may be found eligible under this category. However, the educational guidelines for assigning this category are much narrower than the medical definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

The educational requirements emphasize significant difficulty with communication, establishing “reciprocal relationships”, and coping with day to day challenges. Often children and youth on the spectrum who are able to communicate verbally aren’t labeled with autism in the school environment even if they have a medical diagnosis. They may instead be given an IEP for Emotional Behavioral Disability or Other Health Impairment. 

Here is the Wisconsin DPI eligibility checklist for determining a student eligible for an IEP under the Autism category.

Intellectual Disabilities

Students whose cognitive abilities are significantly different from their peers, due to conditions like Down Syndrome, may be found eligible under the category of intellectual disabilities. This category is most commonly applied to students whose disability impacts their performance across the board academically, as opposed to students who have a learning disability that impacts their performance in a certain area like reading or writing. 

Here is the Wisconsin DPI eligibility checklist for determining a student eligible for an IEP under the Intellectual Disabilities category. 

Emotional Behavioral Disabilities

This eligibility category is often applied to students who have “big or challenging behaviors” (verbal or physical aggression, running away from class or school, big emotional outbursts, etc.). While there are certainly students for whom an “emotional disability” is the most accurate category (such as students who struggle with a mood disorder), the eligibility criteria place an extremely high emphasis on behavior, which leads to concerns about whether the IEP team will really consider the root causes of the child’s behavior in determining appropriate services. 

There are many  reasons that children exhibit big behaviors - the child’s needs may be going unmet, the student may feel unheard or disrespected by staff or peers, or the child may be experiencing emotions or body sensations that are overwhelming to them. There is concern that if the root causes of the child’s behavior is not identified, then the services and accommodations put in place will be simply trying to control the behavior rather than teaching the student new ways to cope or addressing the systemic factors that are negatively impacting the student. 

Additionally, while the eligibility checklist indicates that behavioral norms should take into account the child’s culture, there are likely many instances in which the school is using the ruler of white middle-class cultural norms, which can lead to disproportionate identification of children of color under this category. 

Here is the Wisconsin DPI eligibility checklist for determining a student eligible for an IEP under Emotional Behavioral Disabilities.

Hearing Impairment

This eligibility category is appropriate for a student who is deaf or hard of hearing and whose learning is impacted because of this. 

Here is the Wisconsin DPI eligibility checklist for determining a student eligible for an IEP under a Hearing Impairment: 

Other Health Impairment

This eligibility category is applicable to a student who has any sort of health condition that has observable symptoms within the school environment that impact their “health, vitality, and/or alertness” and result in a negative effect on their learning. This category is often utilized for students who struggle with ADHD and/or other mental health challenges that do not result in “big behaviors” that would be outwardly observable, but that still have an impact on their learning. 

Here is the Wisconsin DPI eligibility checklist for determining a student eligible for an IEP under Other Health Impairment.

Significant Developmental Delay

This eligibility category may only be applied to students who are between the ages of 3 and 9. Parent/caregiver reports, history, and observations must indicate that the student is significantly (at least 1.5 standard deviations) behind the average in development compared to other students their age. These delays must limit two or more of their life areas, which include physical movement (fine or gross motor skills), cognitive abilities, communication, emotional or social abilities, and adaptive abilities. 

Here is the Wisconsin DPI eligibility checklist for determining a student eligible for an IEP under Significant Developmental Delay: 

Speech/Language Impairment

This eligibility category is applicable to students who have significant difficulties with language and producing speech. This difficulty must not be related to being an English Language Learner or to a factor like social phobia. 

Here is the Wisconsin DPI eligibility checklist for determining a student eligible for an IEP under Speech/Language Impairment.

Specific Learning Disabilities

This eligibility category is applicable for students who struggle with a particular component of learning, such as students who have dyslexia that significantly impacts their ability to take in written information. 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines SLD as:

“a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or perform mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, motor disabilities, cognitive disabilities, emotional disturbance, cultural factors, environmental, or economic disadvantage.”


It is also a requirement that the student demonstrate “both insufficient progress and inadequate classroom achievement after the student has received at least two intensive, scientific, research-based, or evidence-based interventions”, which are not special education services, but rather interventionist services available within general education. 

No eligibility checklist linked currently.

Traumatic Brain Injury

This category is applicable to students who experienced a brain injury after an external physical impact (rather than due to oxygen deprivation or other causes not related to a physical impact) and appeared to be developing in a typical manner prior to this injury. In order to be eligible for an IEP, the student’s learning must be adversely affected due to the effects of this injury. 

Here is the Wisconsin DPI eligibility checklist for Traumatic Brain Injury.

Visual Impairments

This category is applicable to students who have been diagnosed with certain specific visual conditions and who have been evaluated by a certified teacher of the visually impaired and found to have different educational needs. 

Here is the Wisconsin DPI eligibility checklist for Visual Impairments.