Weston Hurd logo

What's In a Name? See How to Address Parent Concerns about Disability Labels

in News

This article originally appeared in Special Ed Connection on February 13, 2023. 

What’s in a name? See how to address parent concerns about disability labels

It is one thing to find out your child has a disability for the first time; it’s another when the disability supposedly carries a stigma in your family or community. Because of this, parents may ask your team to give their child a different label, such as autism, instead of emotional disturbance or a different eligibility category.

“It’s not always an initial eligibility determination,” said Kathy Perrico, a school attorney at Weston Hurd LLP in Cleveland, Ohio. “You could have a student at a preschool level who was identified as having a developmental delay who is now school age, and parents have concerns about what category needs to be picked, especially when mental health is involved.”

While it may be tempting to oblige a parent’s request to assign a specific disability category to avoid conflict, doing so may cause problems later when it comes to disciplinary situations or preparing the student for life after high school. Find out what you can do when parents request a different eligibility category to make sure they receive the information and support they need to meaningfully participate while you address all their child’s needs.

Address parent reluctance

If a student is eligible for special education with an other health impairment, but his mental health needs worsen as he gets older, he may more appropriately qualify with an emotional disturbance, Perrico said. But parents may struggle to accept that label. Another one may be easier to stomach.

“You can have parents who are just reactive to the name of the category,” she said. “There’s a temptation to say, ‘Well, we won’t call it that, then; we’ll call it other health impairment.'”

But parents need to understand their child’s needs and not face any surprises because of their discomfort with a category name, Perrico said.

“I don’t care what goes on the line as long as you have really thoroughly identified all the areas of strengths and deficits and all the implications for instruction,” she said. “I would find it hard to believe that it could lead to any sort of violation if the evaluation document as a whole is aligned with all federal and state requirements.”

If you use the appropriate assessment instruments and appropriately interpret the data and identify all the student’s needs, you’re not likely to cause substantive harm and deny the child FAPE, Perrico said.

Consider disciplinary implications

At the same time, recognize that all those needs must be contemplated if the student faces a manifestation determination review, Perrico said. You can’t just look at whatever you’ve documented as the student’s eligibility category and decide the student’s behavior is not a manifestation.

“You have to look at the totality of the disability and the manner in which the disability manifests,” she said.

For example, if a student with a specific learning disability lights a fire in a school bathroom, you have to look at his history to see the results of any social-emotional and behavioral assessments, Perrico said. If the student has a history of impulsive and extreme behaviors, you may find that it’s a manifestation of his disability, even though it’s SLD.

Try gentle honesty

To avoid misunderstandings, it is better to help parents understand why their child is eligible under the category he is in an honest but gentle way, Perrico said. The parents may be more concerned about their child hearing it than they are. As a student gets older and is poised to participate in his IEP meeting, work with the parents about how much you will discuss while he is present. You may decide to include the student for just a part of the meeting or just give him a summary of his strengths and needs.

“Ultimately, students are going to need to understand, to the extent that they can, their needs and strengths to be able to communicate them to a professor or employer,” she said. “You may give them a mini evaluation team report summary, then give the parents the full document.”

Extend support

If you have one, you may want to link parents to a parent liaison in the district to help them come to terms with their child’s classification, Perrico said. Many districts in Ohio have parent mentors, who are usually parents of children with disabilities who understand how the system works. The parents may want to review information with the mentor before an IEP meeting.

“Especially after an initial assessment, when parents are still going through the grieving process, parent mentors can be really good support,” she said.

Weston Hurd LLP attorneys regularly assist school districts in all aspects of school law. For further information, please contact Kathryn Perrico (kperrico@westonhurd.com) or any of the education law attorneys.