Who Qualifies?

Obviously, parents with financial means are always free to purchase whatever services they feel their child needs privately at their own expense. This can be very expensive, however. The vast majority of LD children’s parents would find this to be quite a hardship. They have no choice but to rely on services provided and paid for through the public schools in accordance with law (see above). After a school system has conducted an evaluation, how do they determine whether a child qualifies for services, and what services a child qualifies for? The answer to this question varies quite a bit between states and communities across the country. It can also vary in a single community over time depending on staff and budget fluctuations. There are two basic ways of approaching this problem, however – “categorical” methods, and “functional” methods.

  • Categorical: Most states in the nation use the categorical approach. Under this approach, certain diagnoses qualify, others don’t. At the most basic level, children in these states are “coded” as either Learning Disabled, Emotionally Disturbed, or Medically Handicapped. If the children do not have a diagnosis that falls into one of those categories (by state or city criteria), they are not eligible for services. In these states, political battles over eligibility tend to revolve around which diagnoses are included in these lists. For instance, a common controversy is whether Attention Deficit Disorder “qualifies” at all, and if it does, which category it fits under.
  • Functional: Until recently in Massachusetts, the “functional” approach was used instead. Here, the specific diagnosis really does not matter. Indeed, in their CORE evaluations Massachusetts school systems still usually “shy away” from applying labels or making diagnoses at all. Instead, it is determined how far behind a child is in certain areas. If their problems are deemed to be severe enough (by local criteria) for whatever reason, services are rendered. Since 1999 Massachusetts has begun moving towards the Categorical approach, requiring a qualifying diagnosis. Because of the functional tradition in the state, however, these requirements are sometimes rather loosely applied.

The functional approach has the advantage of making services somewhat easier to obtain (as evidenced by the fact that Massachusetts has one of the highest SPED delivery rates in the nation), but it also has disadvantages. In particular, children in states where this approach is taken often remain undiagnosed longer. Parents may feel that they don’t know why their children have the problems they have. This can be as frequent a reason for seeking independent evaluations or second opinions in such states as disputes over what the needs actually are.