What Are Considered Moderate to Severe Disabilities?

Medically Reviewed on 4/4/2022
What Are Considered Moderate to Severe Disabilities
Disabilities that are considered to be moderate to severe include autism, deaf/blindness, and developmental delays that impair speech and motor skills

Disabilities that are considered to be moderate to severe include autism, deaf/blindness, and developmental delays that impair speech and motor skills.

How is intellectual disability determined?

Intellectual disability affects a child’s cognitive and adaptive abilities:

  • Cognitive: Reasoning, problem-solving, memory, thinking
  • Adaptive: Communication, self-care, and other skills needed to function in society

To determine if a person has a disability, their intelligence quotient (IQ) may be a marker:

  • IQ of 50-70: May indicate a mild learning disability
  • IQ of 35-49: May indicate a moderate learning disability
  • IQ of 20-34: May indicate a severe learning disability
  • IQ of less than 20: May indicate a profound learning disability

What are signs of moderate disability?

Signs of moderate disability include the following:

  • The child suffers from a generally stable non-correctable disease that is neither progressive nor degenerative.
  • With some assistance, the child can carry out fundamental life management tasks appropriate for their age and development (feeding, clothing, and using the toilet).
  • Home adjustments, corrective surgery, and one or more weekly medical appointments may be required.
  • The child may require support with transportation and communication.

A child with a moderate disability may have one or more of the following:

  • Developmental or learning impairment
    • May require long-term special education classes
  • Emotional or behavioral impairment
    • Behavioral disorder (may disregard basic social rules and values)
    • Vulnerable to sexual abuse
    • Drugs or some other problems may need long-term therapy
  • Cognitive impairment
    • May require more attention and support to care for themselves
    • Moderate supports, such as those provided in a group home, may be required to achieve independent living
  • Medical or physical conditions

Caregivers must provide a structured supportive environment in which most activities are aimed at improving the child's functioning.


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What are signs of severe disability?

Signs of severe disability include the following:

  • The child may require life-support equipment or may be suffering from a progressive, degenerative, or fatal illness.
  • Significant home adjustments may be required for the child.
  • The child may need to see a doctor regularly, and they may have many hospitalizations.
  • A minimum of two medical appointments per week are required.
  • A parent or helper is required to carry out fundamental life management activities on behalf of a child (feeding, dressing, using the toilet, etc.)
  • Special adjustments for transportation and/or communication may be required.

A child with a severe disability may have one or more of the following:

  • Developmental or learning impairments
    • May cause permanent difficulties in academic or social or emotional functioning
  • Emotional or behavioral impairments
    • May require hospitalization or home treatment
  • Cognitive impairment
    • Severe to profound intellectual disability where conceptual and cognitive skills are very limited
    • Require assistance with all aspects of daily care
    • Verbal communication may be limited
    • Long-term supportive housing may be necessary with around the clock supervision
  • Medical or physical conditions
    • Multiple moderate conditions or a condition that requires ongoing and constant medical attention, such as quadriplegia or cystic fibrosis.

To provide therapeutic, rehabilitative, and medical support and interventions, caregivers may require specialized training or expertise.

14 disability categories under IDEA

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the United States' special education statute. Words and definitions in the IDEA regulate how states define disability and who is entitled to free adequate public education under law. 

To completely fit a definition and be eligible for special education and related services, the child's educational performance must be negatively impacted by the impairment.

  1. Autism: This developmental disorder greatly impairs verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, is usually noticeable before the age of 3, and negatively impacts a child's educational performance. Symptoms of autism include repetitive actions and stereotyped motions, resistance to environmental changes, and atypical responses to sensory events The term autism does not apply if a child's educational performance declines primarily as a result of an emotional issue
  2. Deaf/blindness: Concurrent hearing and vision impairments produce severe communication and other developmental and educational demands that cannot be met in special education programs primarily for deaf or blind children.
  3. Deafness: A significant hearing impairment impairs a child's ability to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, and negatively impacts a child's educational achievement.
  4. Developmental delays: The term developmental delay, as defined by each state, indicates a delay in one or more of the following areas:
    1. Physical development
    2. Cognitive development
    3. Communication
    4. Social or emotional development
    5. Adaptive or behavioral development
  5. Serious emotional disturbance: This is characterized by the presence of one or more of the following traits for a long period and to a significant degree, which negatively impacts a child's educational performance:
    1. Inability to learn that is not explained by cognitive, sensory, or health reasons
    2. Inability to establish or sustain positive interpersonal ties with classmates and teachers
    3. Inappropriate behavior or feelings
    4. Persistent state of unhappiness or depression
    5. Proclivity to develop physical symptoms or anxieties as a result of personal or school troubles
  6. Hearing impairment: A hearing impairment, whether permanent or variable, that negatively impacts a child's educational achievement but is not included in the definition of "deafness."
  7. Intellectual disability: Significantly below-average intellectual functioning that exists concurrently with deficiencies in adaptive behavior and manifests during the formative period and negatively impacts a child's educational success.
  8. Multiple disabilities: Concurrent impairments or a combination of impairments that cause such severe educational demands that they cannot be addressed in a special education program for just one of the impairments.
  9. Orthopedic impairment: A significant orthopedic impairment that negatively impacts a child's academic achievement. Impairments due to a congenital anomaly, disease and other causes are included in the definition.
  10. Other health impairment: Chronic of acute health impairments may cause a heightened awareness of environmental stimuli, resulting in limited alertness in the educational environment.
  11. Specific learning disability: This is defined as a disturbance in one or more of the underlying psychological processes involved in understanding or using spoken or written language, which might emerge as an inability to listen, think, talk, read, write, spell or perform mathematical calculations. Perceptual difficulties, brain damage, mild brain malfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia are included in this category.
  12. Speech or language impairment: This is a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, or voice impairment that negatively impacts a child’s learning and educational performance.
  13. Traumatic brain injury: An acquired brain injury induced by an external physical force may result in entire or partial functional disability, psychosocial impairment, or both. The term refers to open or closed head injuries that cause impairments in one or more areas, including cognition, language, memory, attention, reasoning, abstract thinking, judgment, problem-solving, sensory abilities,motor abilities, psychosocial behavior, physical functions, information processing, and speech
  14. Visual impairment including blindness: This may include a vision defect that, even after correction, negatively impacts a child's educational achievement. It encompasses both limited vision and blindness

According to IDEA, states must provide a free adequate public education to any individual child with a disability who needs special education and related services, even if the child has not failed or been retained in a course or grade and is advancing from grade to grade.

Medically Reviewed on 4/4/2022
Image Source: iStock Images

College of Education. What is the difference between the mild/moderate and severe/autism tracks? https://coe.hawaii.edu/sped/faqs/what-is-the-difference-between-the-mild-moderate-and-severe-autism-tracks/

Lee AMI. The 13 disability categories under IDEA. Understood. https://www.understood.org/articles/en/conditions-covered-under-idea

National Academy of Sciences. The Diversity of Students with Disabilities. https://www.nap.edu/read/5788/chapter/5#72