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National Data

According to the U.S. Department of Education Web site Ed Data Express, 12.1 percent of the nation’s K–12 students had disabilities in 2012-13.

The Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Statistics and Demographics at The University of New Hampshire, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that of the 6,429,431 youth ages 3-21 that received special education services under IDEA in the fall of 2012, 735,890 (or 11.4 percent) were 3-5 years old; 2,631,472 (or 40.9 percent) were 6-11 years old; 2,700,531 (or 42.0 percent) were 12-17 years old, and 361,538 (or 5.6 percent) were 18-21 years old.

The 5,693,441 students ages 6-21 that received special education services under IDEA, Part B, in the fall of 2012 were in the following diagnostic categories: 39.8 percent in specific learning disability, 18.1 percent in speech or language impairment, 7.3 percent in intellectual disabilities, or 6.3 percent in emotional disturbance, or 2.2 percent in multiple disabilities, 1.2 percent in hearing impairments, 0.9 percent in orthopedic impairments, 13.3 percent in other health impairments, 0.4 percent in visual impairments, 7.7 percent in autism, 0.02 percent in deaf-blindness, 0.4 percent in traumatic brain injury, and 2.1 percent in developmental delay.

Of the 5,693,441 youth ages 6-21 that received special education services under IDEA in the fall of 2012, 4,604,585 (or 80.9 percent) spend 40 percent or more of their time in the regular classroom. The District of Columbia had the smallest percentage (68.2 percent), while North Dakota had the largest percentage (92.5 percent).

According to Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, in 2012, an estimated 31 percent of non-institutionalized persons aged 21 to 64 years had an educational attainment of some college/associates degree.

Data Source

Using data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) Common Core of Data, the Web site Ed Data Express publishes data on the percent of students with disabilities. The data is available at the state level. Data at the district level is available at the Federal Education Budget Project website.

The estimates from Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute above are based on a sample of 194,574 persons who participated in the 2012 American Community Survey (ACS).

The University of New Hampshire’s research figures are drawn from from major national survey data (such as the ACS, CPS, NHIS, and SIPP) and the administrative records of government programs (such as SSDI, SSI, federal/state VR programs).


The data on students with disabilities includes all students who have mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral disabilities and have been designated as special education students under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Part B.

How to Use the Data

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that states test at least 95 percent of their students with disabilities and include the test scores of students with disabilities in school ratings. By analyzing students with disabilities data, you can evaluate your school’s demographics and compare your school to other schools and districts across the country.

How the details were measured

The data is reported as the percent of students with disabilities. The data cannot be broken down by race, ethnicity, or other student groups.

Limitations of the data

Districts vary widely in how they identify disabled students. Some rely heavily on subjective measures, while others use highly standardized tests and procedures. These differences can limit the reliability of the data. You should keep local definitions and programs in mind when comparing schools and districts.

Key Questions to Ask

Are minority students disproportionately enrolled in special education?

Research has shown that race plays a significant role in the placement of students in special education. Blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to be identified as intellectually disabled or emotionally disturbed compared to the rest of the school population. To ensure equity, you should evaluate your process for identifying disabled students and make sure that the process doesn’t overidentify certain groups of students.

Learn More

To calculate total enrollment,  Ed Data Express and Federal Education Budget Project rely on data from NCES’s Common Core of Data (CCD), a program that collects basic statistical information from every school in the nation. However, data from these websites may not always match exactly with CCD data, because states may submit changes and updates to their data. More information about the CCD system is available for downloading. You can also download the CCD data, although the CCD data may not always correspond with local data due to differences in data collection and reporting.

Under IDEA, schools must give children with disabilities an appropriate public education and attempt to mainstream them into general education classes whenever possible. Schools must also write an instructional plan (often referred to as an Individual Education Plan or IEP) for each student with a disability that includes learning objectives, mainstreaming procedures, and any related services. The law covers all types of disabilities, including students with mental retardation, physical impairments, emotional disturbances, and any other learning or health disability.

Because of the data requirements of IDEA, there is a lot of state and local data available on students with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education puts much of its IDEA data online, including state-by-state information on the type of student disability by age. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights also collects data on the number of disabled students by state. Its data can be broken out by race and type of program.

Additional Resources

Demonstrating success:

Michigan district gets physical with reading—A special education teacher develops an imaginative system for teaching reading, which has provided this district with a successful formula for helping struggling students become better readers.