US Department of Education lists ADHD as a specific disability

The diagnosis of ADHD in children, a neurobiological disorder characterised by impulsivity, hyperactivity or inattentiveness, has soared over the last decade in the US. Even though the rising rate of diagnosis has been controversial, the CDC estimated that presently there are six million children who are diagnosed with the disorder, with two million of those children being between the ages of 2 and 5.

Children are often diagnosed after showing symptoms such as carelessness or distraction over six months, the line between quirky and disability being ill-defined. However, more and more students are being diagnosed with ADHD every year, raising concerns about how to best accommodate them in schools.

Caring for ADHD can be expensive for school districts, as the services for a single student can cost several thousand dollars a year. However, not treating the disorder is likely to prove more expensive in the long run.

Under a 1973 federal law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, schools are responsible for assessing students for the disorder and supporting them by recording lectures, highlighting passages of textbooks or giving them extra time on tests.

Now the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has issued a guidance clarifying the rights of students living with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the United States. The guidance clarifies that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ensures protection of ADHD students under law. It also aims to prevent schools from discriminating against students with ADHD.

Students disgnosed with ADHD in the United States

According to the OCR, the guidance is being distributed in response to countrywide allegations that students with ADHD are not receiving the necessary services they need to be successful. Parents have complained that their children have been denied specialised services and that schools have failed to protect them from bullying.

Over the last five years, OCR has received more than 16,000 complaints that allege discrimination on the basis of disability in elementary and secondary education programs, and more than 10 percent involve allegations of discrimination against students with ADHD.

“The most common complaint concerns academic and behavioral difficulties students with ADHD experience at school when they are not timely and properly evaluated for a disability, or when they do not receive necessary special education or related aids and services,” the guidance states.

The Education Department, which has received roughly 2,000 such complaints over the last five years, said schools have requested clarification of their responsibilities under the law.

In a letter to school districts and a ‘know your rights’ document to be posted on its website this Tuesday, the department said schools must obey existing civil rights law and ensure that students are being properly evaluated especially when they show signs of being unfocused and distractible. They must also provide them with accommodations to help them learn.

“Many … [teachers] are not familiar with this disorder,” Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said. “The failure to provide needed services to students with disabilities can result in serious social, emotional and educational harm,” she added.

Some cases are missed by the school district and diagnosed later. The new guidelines make clear that school districts should evaluate students who may have the disorder even if they show high academic performance. Parents have the right to ask that a district evaluate a student if they suspect ADHD in their child. Further, the guidance warns against schools relying on generalisations about the disorder to make decisions.

Of course, the US Department of Education is not the first major governmental department to release a guidance of this kind on the disorder. The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention has also released a guidance to professionals, requesting that they emphasize behavioral treatment before prescribing medication when treating children for ADHD.

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