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 English Learners and Students with Disabilities

General Information

 Students served through ESOL should also have access to other appropriate services offered within the Local Education Agency (LEA).  From the time of enrollment, English Learners (EL) must be ensured an equal opportunity to participate in all programs as determined eligible.

LEAs must not qualify ELs for special education programs based on criteria that essentially measures and evaluates English language skills as the student would not be demonstrating their true academic skill or social emotional development. However, LEAs must also ensure that ELs are not improperly excluded from special education services because of the student’s limited English proficiency.  LEAs must take active steps to safeguard that each EL receives FAPE including special education, if eligible, while attentively considering the student’s language and cultural background.

As with other populations, a wide range of abilities are represented among ELs.  The difficulty comes in determining whether a learning or behavioral concern exists because of English language acquisition or if a disability is present.  ELs have specific instructional needs because of their unique cultural and linguistic background.  If an EL is having difficulty mastering specific skills, it is important to provide accommodations, utilize instructional strategies, evidence-based interventions and implement a multi-tiered system of supports.  Just because the student requires accommodations to achieve mastery and demonstrate progress does not necessarily mean the student has a disability or should be referred to special education.  In the event a disability is suspected, the Student Support Team should consider a referral to special education.

English Learners dually identified as a student with a disability must be provided supports and services as determined through the student’s IEP and language assistance program.

See Dear Colleague Letter - January 2015

  • USED Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Dear Colleague Letter, “English Learner Students and Limited English Proficient Parents,” January 2015
  • Link to Dear Colleague Letter January 2015

Excerpt from United State Department of Education/ United States Department of Justice - Dear Colleague Letter, January 2015, Pages 24-27, Evaluating EL Students for Special Education Services and Providing Special Education and English Language Services The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504).

Accommodations for EL/SWD or SWD being screened for potential English Learner eligibility with the WIDA screener

Accommodation Checklists provided by WIDA to guide the IEP teams’ discussion and choice of accommodations for EL/SWD. This task requires effective collaboration between Assessment, Special Education, and ESOL personnel.

​Additional information on the subject can be found in the following documents:

Resources for Teachers of English Learners - Students with Disabilities

Additional Resources:


 Contact Information

Special Education Questions & Support

Wina Low
​State Director

Special Education Help Desk:
(404) 657-9968


EL Language Programs Questions & Support

Dr. Margaret Baker,
Title III,
Part A and ESOL Language Programs,
Program Manager,
Federal Programs
(678) 794-3695