The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) gives you and your child with a learning or certain other disability several rights. For example, it gives:
- Your child the right to a "free appropriate public education," that is, free education services and resources that are tailored for his specific, special needs
- You the right to have your child evaluated or tested to see if he in fact has a learning disability and qualifies for IDEA assistance
- You the right to see your child's education records, as well as the results of any tests or evaluations involving your child
- You the right to actively participate when the state educational agency (SEA) or local educational agency (LEA), such as your local school district, creates your child's individualized education program (IEP) - the plan that states what special education services your child needs and how they'll be delivered to her
- You and your child the right to legally challenge any decisions and resolve any disputes about your child's educational needs
How do you take advantage of and protect all of these rights? In other words, do you need a special education lawyer to help get your child the educational services and resources he's entitled to under the IDEA? That depends on many things, like your child's needs, and your finances and familiarity with the law, just to name a few.
Your child needs an advocate when it come to her special education. That is, she needs someone to work on her behalf for things like asking the SEA or local school district for special education services in the first place; developing an IEP; and making sure that she gets any other related services she may need, such as physical or speech therapy, or transportation to and from school. Who's going to do it?
You can, of course. As a parent, no one knows better than you what your child's abilities and needs are. And, naturally, your child's best interests are your primary concern. So, you should be an active participant in the educational choices and decisions are made for your child. However, the IDEA and the special IDEA rules (called "regulations"), can be difficult to understand. And, the SEA, LEA, and your local school district each have their own set of rules and policies that you need to know about and follow.
A special education lawyer can help you understand and get through the process. And you gave some options here. Many parents start the IDEA process on their own and talk to an attorney only when they hit an obstacle and can't move forward with the school district. Some parents hire an attorney to handle the entire IDEA process from start to finish because they have immediate problems or they simply want to have minimal contact with school and education officials. For example, you might contact an attorney:
- Months or even years after an IEP has been created for your child because the school district has refused your request for an additional related service, like transportation; or the school district wants to reduce the amount of time your child spends in the regular classroom with non-disabled students
- Almost immediately in the IDEA process because the school district doesn't believe that your child has a disability covered by the IDEA
Things to Consider
Thinking about some of these things will help you decide if you need to hire a special education lawyer:
How comfortable are you with the IDEA and regulations? You need to have a very good understanding of how the IDEA is supposed to work. You can find all sorts of information and resources at your local library and online. If you don't have a lot of time to devote learning the ins-and-outs of the law, you may want to talk to an attorney for help very early in the process.
The facts of your child's case. Is your child on the "borderline" of listed disability? Will she require multiple special education resources or related services, like a lot one-on-one instruction, special equipment and speech and physical therapy? The more complicated the case or the more resources your child may need (remember, special education resources are expensive and aren't unlimited) may increase the need for a lawyer's help.
The current situation. Of course, if you've already secured your child's special education needs and everything's running smoothly, then you don't need a lawyer for anything. You may want to talk to an attorney, though, if any of the following comes up:
- Your child is evaluated and the school district doesn't agree that she has a disability. An attorney can help prepare evidence and get expert testimony from doctors and mental health professionals to help you convince the school district that your child is entitled to IDEA assistance
- The school district has decided that your child is no longer ion need of some or all of the special education resources or related sources
- You intend to file a complaint against the school district with the SEA, or you want a "due process" hearing, because you think the school district is ignoring your child's needs. These are legal proceedings with special rules about how to do things and what evidence a judge will look at, so a lawyer's expertise may be needed
Your finances. You don't need to be told that lawyers cost money. If you're on a tight budget, you simply may not be able to hire a lawyer for help. However, you should contact your local bar association or legal center and, and even ask the LEA or school district, if there's a program that will give you access to legal assistance at little or no cost.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How long will it take if I hire you to do all of the work in getting my child the special education services I think she needs?
- The school keeps refusing my requests for more frequent and more detailed reports on my child's progress. Is there anyway you can help?
- We recently moved to a new school district and it wants to change my child's IEP. Can it do that? Can I fight it?