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National Center for Special Education Research

Perceptions and Expectations of Youth With Disabilities  (NLTS2)
NCSER 2007-3006
September 2007

Categorizing Students by Primary Disability

Information about the nature of students' disabilities came from rosters of all students in the NLTS2 age range receiving special education services in the 2000–01 school year under the auspices of participating LEAs and state-supported special schools. In analyses in this report, students are assigned to a disability category on the basis of the primary disability designated by the student's school or district. Although there are federal guidelines in making category assignments (table A-10), criteria and methods for assigning students to categories vary from state to state and even between districts within states, with the potential for substantial variation in the nature and severity of disabilities included in the categories (see, for example, MacMillan and Siperstein 2002). Therefore, NLTS2 data should not be interpreted as describing students who truly had a particular disability, but rather as describing students who were categorized as having that primary disability.

The exception to reliance on school or district category assignment involves students with deaf-blindness. District variation in assigning students with both hearing and visual impairments to the category of deaf-blindness results in many students with those dual disabilities being assigned to other primary disability categories, most often hearing impairment, visual impairment, and multiple disabilities. Because of these classification differences, national estimates suggest that there were 3,196 students with deaf-blindness who were ages 12 to 17 in 1999 (National Technical Assistance Center 1999), whereas the federal child count indicated that 681 were classified with deaf-blindness as their primary disability (Office of Special Education Programs 2001).

To describe the characteristics and experiences of the larger body of youth with deaf-blindness more accurately and precisely, students who were reported by parents or by schools or school districts58 as having both a hearing and a visual impairment were assigned to the deaf-blindness category for purposes of NLTS2 reporting, regardless of the primary disability category assigned by the school or school district. This increased the number of youth with deaf-blindness for whom parent data were collected from 24 who were categorized by their school or district as having deaf-blindness as a primary disability to 166. The number of students reassigned to the deaf-blindness category and their original designation of primary disability are indicated in table A-5. Because there still are relatively few members of the deaf-blindness disability category, for purposes of multivariate analyses, they are included with the category of multiple disabilities.

Table A-5: Definitions of disabilities


58 Some special schools and school districts reported secondary disabilities for students. So, for example, a student with visual impairment as his or her primary disability category also could have been reported as having a hearing impairment as a secondary disability.