The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in elementary and secondary school closures in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and has forced a sudden and widespread shift to online learning. This transition has been especially challenging for the nation’s nearly 7 million disabled students. Instruction and support for this group of students are not as easily transferred to the internet, and school systems and families are struggling to meet the challenge.

Disabled students ages 3 to 21 are served under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees students with disabilities the right to free public education and appropriate special education services. Here is what the data shows about disabled students in the United States.

How we did this

To compile this look at disabled students in the U.S. as they face the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, we combined an analysis of federal education data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Pew Research Center survey findings.

The spring 2016 Pew Research Center survey was conducted using the Center’s American Trends Panel. The fall 2016 survey on technology adoption was conducted by telephone.

For the purposes of this analysis, disabled students include those ages 3 to 21 who are served under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Through IDEA, children with disabilities are granted a free appropriate public school education and are ensured special education and related services.

1 The nearly 7 million disabled students in the U.S. make up 14% of national public school enrollment, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. This group has grown 11% between 2000-01 (when there were 6.3 million students) and 2017-18, the most recent year for which data is available.

Between the 2000-01 and 2017-18 school years, disabled student populations grew in most states

2 As students across the country shift from classrooms to online learning, disabled students may face unique barriers. A Pew Research Center survey of Americans ages 18 and older conducted in spring 2016 found disabled Americans express lower levels of comfort with using technology. Disabled adults are less likely than those without a disability to say that having a high level of confidence in their ability to use the internet and other communication devices to keep up with information describes them “very well” (39% vs. 65% of all adults). A separate survey conducted in fall 2016 found that 23% of disabled adults say they never go online, compared with 8% of non-disabled adults (the survey defines disability as a “health problem, disability or handicap currently keeping you from participating fully in work, school, housework or other activities”).

About a third of disabled U.S. students have a 'specific learning disability,' such as dyslexia3The most common type of disability for students in prekindergarten through 12th grade involves “specific learning disabilities,” such as dyslexia or a brain injury. In 2017-18, about a third (34%) of disabled students had a specific learning disability, 20% had a speech or language impairment and 14% had a chronic or acute health problem that adversely affected their educational performance, federal education data shows.

4Autistic students made up 10% of the nation’s disabled schoolchildren in 2017-18, compared with 1.5% nearly two decades earlier. During that same time, the share of disabled students with a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia, declined from 45% to about a third, according to NCES data.

New York state serves largest share of disabled students in U.S.5The percentage of students in special education varies widely among the states. At 19.2% of public school enrollment, New York state serves the largest share of disabled students in the country, followed by Pennsylvania (18.6%), Maine (18.4%) and Massachusetts (18%), federal data shows. The states serving the lowest shares of disabled students include Texas (9.2% of total public school enrollment), Hawaii (10.6%) and Idaho (11%).

Between the 2000-01 and 2017-18 school years, all but 15 states experienced growth in their disabled student populations. In Nevada, the disabled student population increased by 58%. Rhode Island saw a 23% decline, the largest of any state.

These disparities are likely the result of inconsistencies in how states determineMore U.S. special education students are male than in the overall public school population which students are eligible for special education services and some of the challenges involved with identifying disabled children.

6The racial and ethnic makeup of the nation’s special education students is similar to public school students overall, but there is a difference when it comes to gender. About two-thirds of disabled students are male (67%), while 33% are female, according to data from the 2017-18 school year. Overall student enrollment is about evenly split between boys and girls, according to federal data for 2016-17, the most recent year for which NCES has published this data.

(Research has shown that inconsistencies exist by race and ethnicity when it comes to which students are recommended for special education, and that the socioeconomic makeup of a school and achievement markers, such as test scores, may factor in.)

Katherine Schaeffer  is a research analyst at Pew Research Center.