It can be incredibly overwhelming to not only have a child with a disability who may require a significant amount of attention but then to realize you also have to become your child’s full time advocate. You must learn the ins and outs of each system, especially the public school system.
Overwhelming is an understatement. As a parent of a special needs child, I can relate. When you add up all the other areas of life for which children with the special needs require support, you are no longer just a parent. You must become so much more. Parents are forced to navigate the seemingly mind-boggling world of special education with its complex jargon, confusing rules and guidelines.
As an attorney, I have used my professional training to advocate for not only my child, but other children and families as well. I try to present information as coherently and simply as possible for the parents who come to me for assistance. In a system were logic does not govern, you must be informed, you must be educated and you must be as prepared as you can to advocate for your child.
I learned early on in law school that when all else fails, go back to the origins and learn the “purpose” for the rule to best know how to apply it.
This is a strategy that can truly help parents advocate effectively for their child. Regardless of whether you know the specific codes or policies, knowing the purpose of the many laws protecting the rights of student’s with disabilities usually allows the rest to fall into place.
The purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as amended in 2004 (34 CFR 300.1) is:
"TO ENSURE THAT ALL CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES HAVE AVAILABLE TO THEM A FREE APPROPRIATE PUBLIC EDUCATION (FAPE) THAT EMPHASIZES SPECIAL EDUCATION AND RELATED SERVICES DESIGNED TO MEET THEIR UNIQUE NEEDS AND PREPARE THEM FOR FURTHER EDUCATION, EMPLOYMENT AND INDEPENDENT LIVING"
As I began to hold parent workshops, I learned that reciting the law was the least effective way to train parents. Why would a parent need someone to stand in front of them and recite the law when they could just read it on their own? Knowledge of rules and laws in special education, while very important to know, does not always open the door to getting your child what they need. But KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. The real advocacy comes from being prepared to respond to a school district. You must know that you are an EQUAL member of your child’s IEP team – (Individualized Education Program). As an equal member you must be prepared to respond to the typical situations that may arise during the process of advocating for your child. Remember, your child is the reason that the school support team has gathered for a meeting. Your child’s rights are paramount. Parents should be able to approach IEP meetings with a sense of assurance that they are knowledgeable in the process and should not have to feel overwhelmed and fearful in the days leading up to these proceedings. The knowledge comes from strategies used to encourage a team effort while ensuring that the child’s rights are protected. Knowledge, not just of the law but of the “ins and outs” of the typical process and its purpose is power.
Even for experienced legal professionals, it may take years to absorb the enormous complexity of special education law (the IDEA). To be perfectly honest, when I first began advocating for my own special needs son, I didn’t always thoroughly understand the applicable laws. But this is the moment when understanding the spirit of the law—the reason it exists—becomes so important. At those early meetings, when I would offer what I believed to be a common-sense solution to my child’s deficits and was told—very confusingly— that the school did not have such a program or service, I would think back to that important section of the IDEA highlighted above and would ask, “Well, aren’t we supposed to meet my child’s unique needs?” Trust your instincts: The one thing that the parent is already an expert in is the “unique needs” of their own child.
A NOTE TO FAMILIES
OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES