As a parent, you may know that the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) gives your child with a learning disability the right to special education services - a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) - that are tailored for her specific needs. Getting that FAPE and all the things your child needs to learn isn't always easy, though. Knowing how to advocate for a special education child can help you make sure that she gets everything she needs.
What's an "Advocate" and When Do I Have to Be One?
An advocate is someone who works on behalf or for the benefit of someone else or a cause or project. In the field of special education and the IDEA, an advocate typically tries to get a child with special needs the educational and other "related services" she needs to get the best education possible. At the same time, the advocate's goal is to get the child what she needs to enable her to enter the "mainstream" society, that is, to learn and even work without special assistance.
You may need to become an advocate for your child's educational needs for any number reasons, such as when:
- School officials evaluated your child and decided that she doesn't have a learning disability listed in the IDEA and so she's not entitled to special education or services
- You and the school officials disagree about what types of special education your child should get. For example, the school thinks that your child needs special education in reading but not in math, but you think your child needs help with math, too
- There's a disagreement over what "related services," your child will receive. For instance, you think your child should receive speech and physical therapy services, but the school wants to give him speech therapy only
- You don’t think the child has been placed in the "least restrictive environment" (LRE) for her education. For instance, the school has your child in a separate special education classroom for 75% of the day and in the general classrooms with non-disabled students for the remaining 25%, but you feel your child should be in the general classroom for at least 50% of the day
The possibilities here are endless. The important thing to remember is that you may need to become an advocate for child's needs whenever there's some disagreement about what types of specialized instruction, services or treatment that your child receives or doesn't receive.
How to Advocate
Special education services are big expenses for state and local school systems and these resources are limited. So, not every request for additional instruction or services can be granted. It falls on you to convince the school officials that your child needs the requested educational or related service. Follow these general rules to be a good advocate:
Educate yourself. You have to have the necessary knowledge and information to be a good advocate. It's critical that you have a very good understanding of:
- Your child's particular learning disability and how the disability is typically treated or handled by educational institutions as well as medical professionals
- Your child's educational history and background. That is, you need to be able to discuss why your child needs, or how long she's been in, special education; her grades; which subjects she manages and in which she struggles; what progress she's made, as shown through the tests and periodic reports you get from the special educators, etc.
- The legal ins-and-outs, namely, what rights the IDEA and the special IDEA rules (called "regulations") gives you and your child; the policies and procedures of the state education agency (SEA) in your state, as well those of the "local education agency" (LEA), such as your local school district
Request an evaluation. Under the IDEA, if you ask the SEA, LEA, or local public school district to evaluate your child for the existence of a learning disability, your child must be evaluated. And, if you don't agree with the results of that evaluation, you can ask for an independent educational evaluation (IEE). This evaluation will be made by another person or group of persons who aren't associated with the person or persons who made the first evaluation.
Keep records. Write down everything and don't throw anything away. Jot down notes after you speak to a school official or teacher in person or on the telephone. Make copies of any letters you send to the school or to teachers, and keep any notes or letters you receive from them. Keep the periodic reports you receive from the school or special educators, and certainly keep all IEPs prepared for your child. All of this documentation will go a long way in helping you convince the school officials that your request for special education services is reasonable and necessary.
Get recommendations. If you don't already have them, get written recommendations from various professionals that support your request for special education or additional related services - whatever you're asking the school officials to provide to your child. Letters or examination notes from doctors, physical therapists and psychiatric professionals are good examples.
Don't give up or give in! Just because you've asked before and been refused, or just because someone else in your position hasn't had success with your school officials, doesn't mean that your request will be denied forever. Continue gathering information and recommendations, and continue tracking your child's progress, and then renew your request periodically. Be polite and professional. You want to be persistent, but not troublesome. And the worse thing you can do is to become combative or hostile with the school officials, which will make them less likely to grant your request. Your dealing with your child's education and future, so don't be afraid to keep trying to get all of his educational needs met.
Questions For Your Attorney
- For over a year I've been trying to get transportation service for my special education child, but the school keeps telling me that it's not required for his disability. I've done everything I can think. What else can I do?
- I need better and more frequent reports on my child's progress, but the school says that it's reporting policy is adequate and that it can't afford to make changes just for me and my child. Is there anyway I can get the school to give me the reports I need?
- I don't think many of my child's special education classmates are getting the proper attention. Can I write letters and "advocate" for children that aren't mine? Does the school have to address my concerns as they relate to these other children?