When and How a Special Education Advocate Can Help You
Developing Your Child's IEP
Navigating the special education maze can be mind-boggling. At the very least, the process of securing services related to special education for a child with a learning disability can be frustrating and emotional. The good news is that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a child’s rights are protected and they are legally entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
This also means that a parent or guardian is entitled to become an involved member of the team of professionals responsible for developing an Individual Education Plan (or IEP) for the child. However, the emotional involvement a parent has in their child's future is sometimes the very thing that makes parents ineffective negotiators or advocates within this team.
Sometimes it is difficult to actively and objectively listen when trying to openly communicate with school officials. There may be some parents that feel overwhelmed, intimidated or inadequate at comprehending all the complicated special education laws and the available educational services and decisions that must be made. This is when the choice to have an advocate may be the right option to explore.
Choosing an Educational Advocate
An educational advocate is not necessarily someone with credentials, although they can be. There are those who specialize in this area, however, there are no specific requirements for a person in order for them to advocate for special education services. Anyone invited by the parents or a guardian is welcome to attend the IEP meeting.
Ideally this will be someone who supports you, but is also objective and a good listener. You may want to consider the following when enlisting a person who will assist you and make the best advocate for your child:
- No children in your public school system: This avoids the issue of past prejudices or negative interactions, which could cause the IEP team to view the advocate as biased.
- Some background history or experience at navigating the special education system: This is a definite plus! And if they are familiar with education laws or your child’s disability, even better!
- Is the person an effective communicator and do they use active listening skills?
- Is the person trustworthy? Can they support you and aid in making appropriate decisions regarding your child's special education plan?
·Above all, the most important advice is to choose someone with whom you are comfortable.
Ultimately, an expert in the area of special education law can be enlisted in the event that all appropriate services are not being offered or provided to your child. An individual in this field who has knowledge of your child’s disability is most important if you feel your child and his or her rights are not being protected.
There are a number of resources available to parents and guardians to help them understand their rights under IDEA. Some of them are as follows:
- Annual Guide to Special Education, Parent’s Rights; This is provided by the school and can vary somewhat by state. As an example, this is an online version of the Illinois State Board of Education Guide - http://www.isbe.net/spec-ed/html/parent_rights.htm
- The Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) - http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/osep/index.html
- Parent Advisory Councils on Special Education; Depending on the size of your community, there may be one for your school district, greater metropolitan area and state.
- Online independent websites about specific disabilities will often have a wealth of information on special education law. There are also sites like WrightsLaw - http://www.wrightslaw.com/ - that focus entirely on the legal aspects of special education.·