How to enlist the help of a special education advocate at your child's school
The scene was one which is played out in school conference rooms all across America. My husband and I sat at a long table where we were surrounded by school personnel including the school psychologist, case manager, special education teachers, speech therapist occupational therapist and anyone else the school system could select to make their case. We were clearly outnumbered. Our child was four years old, recently diagnosed with autism, and was in need of preschool services.
My husband and I were put in the position of proving to the school system that such therapies and services such as Occupational Therapy and Speech Therapy were necessary for our child. We were also requesting the maximum hours of service for our son who had severe challenges. What seemed common sense to us was something we had to substantiate and justify. When I handed the members of our meeting both literature and signed notes from our private psychologist and pediatrician to justify our requests, the school psychologist slid those papers back to me across that long table. When she refused to look at the papers and referred to me as "the child's mother" instead of looking at me or addressing me by name, I knew we were in trouble. I felt as though I landed in some episode of the IEP twilight zone.
I was stunned and could not find my voice. It was then that our advocate, our son's private speech therapist, had no problem finding hers. And when she began to speak, the whole table listened including the belligerent school psychologist. I was never so grateful in my life. And half way through this six hour IEP meeting (yes I did say six hours!) it was our advocate who reminded me of why we were there. I was weary and near tears. During the break, I told her that I was ready to walk out the door with no services just to be done with this. She leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Don't you dare quit now! Remember that this is for your son!" These were just the right words I needed to hear. And in the end we did win the services we had fought for.
It goes without saying that I was really glad I brought an advocate to our meeting.
Maybe you are facing your first IEP for your child as we had so many years ago. Or maybe you have been dealing with the school system for some time and feel that you are not getting anywhere with negotiations. Or perhaps you are unsure of what services are available to your child or are unaware of the special education laws which serve to protect your child's rights. For all of these reasons and more, it can sometimes be very useful to enlist the aid of an advocate for your child.
Some advocates are professional special education advocates who will charge you a fee. And some advocates will help for little to no cost. So it is very wise to ask up front if there will be any fees involved. There will also be variance as far as what the advocate will do for you. Some will only suggest things to you by phone and some will be willing to accompany you to meetings with the school district. Advocates are not attorneys and do not have a license to practice law. Advocates usually have experience and training with regard to special education law especially including IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). There is no certificate or special licence to become an advocate so do ask questions about their experience, training, continued education and etc. to get a feel for who you are enlisting for help.
The other thing I would personally suggest is to ask about your advocate about their philosophy with regard to education and services for children with special needs. The last thing you want is to have an advocate who doesn't really believe in the goals you have for your child. Also it is a really good idea for the advocate to meet your child if he or she does not know them already. Gather all the documents and papers necessary for the advocate to be able to best represent your child.
I have always had advocates who did not request a fee. Our speech teacher provided her help for free. She was knowledgeable and had lots of experience dealing with the school system. One huge bonus about her was that she knew my child! She had worked with him and was in agreement with me about what his needs were. I have also gotten advocacy help from societies which specialize in the type of disability my son has. I have gotten phone help from both the Autism Society and from the Arc , an organization who helps those who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.
If your child has a learning disability you might want to call the Learning Disability Association of America at (888) 300-6710. Their web site may be found here.
Another excellent resource to find an advocate is to join on-line support groups to speak with other parents who are going through similar circumstances. Just go to yahoo groups and do a search under the disability that your child has. I guarantee that you will find many groups to choose from. On-line parental support groups have been my life line as far as advocating for my child. You may even find another parent who lives in your community who has been through what you are going through and would agree to be your advocate.
There are no concrete rules for finding an advocate. An advocate can be a therapist, another parent, or a paid consultant. You get to choose.
Lastly, here are some further resources for finding an advocate for your child:
- Parent Connections Program at Parents Helping Parents
- Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
- Special Ed Advocate Newsletter
- For a nationwide selection of advocates please follow this link
Have you ever enlisted the help from an advocate to help your child who has special needs? Please do share your experiences here. You may help another parent in the process.