How to be an advocate for your child with special needs

It seems that every time we pick up a newspaper, we are reading about new cuts in school funding, larger class sizes, or other education-related problems. As a society, we need to do what we can to influence our local governments to fund our schools properly, or find an alternative, but what

do we do now, when many of our children are not getting their needs met? This is especially true regarding children with special needs such as dyslexia, autism, behavior disorders, and the like. What can we do to help these children?

There is becoming a greater need in the community for advocates who will fight for the rights of children who are in special education programs at their schools. More and more, we find that children with special needs are being sent disproportionately to disciplinary alternative schools, and when you look at prison statistics, you’ll find that the majority of individuals who are currently in prison are illiterate.

Many of these prisoners went straight from high school to prison! The fact that our children’s needs are not being met in the public schools is causing a greater societal problem than that which lies in the schools themselves. Not every child who has a learning problem will end up in prison, but doesn’t every child deserve the best chance they can get to be a success in life?

So, perhaps you have decided that you would like to do something to address this problem. Where do you start? First of all, you need to be the sort of person who is not afraid to back down from their position when faced with pressure from school officials. You need to feel comfortable being a voice for others, and to do that; you must have good communication skills. You must be diplomatic in your dealings with others.

If you have these traits, chances are, you would make a good advocate. An ability to navigate the school system and a familiarity with special education law (IDEA) is essential. People with a background in education or law find this job the easiest, but anyone can learn how to do it, by participating in meetings as an observer and learning the law.

Who in your community needs your help? Start out by talking to your neighbors, and other people that you know. If any of them have children with special needs and express frustration with the system, then you have found a person who needs help. Many parents feel very overwhelmed when faced with a panel of teachers, administrators, assessment personnel, and other experts. Sometimes school personnel can forget that the parent is also an expert on the child.

It is especially difficult when the parent speaks a different language than that spoken by the people at the meeting. Although a translator is legally required for special education meetings (otherwise called ARD’s, for Admission, Review, Dismissal), many parents report that the translator does not translate the entire meeting, or does not translate in an entirely forthcoming manner.

Common concerns that parents have is that their child is not placed in the proper classes, is not being tested at the correct level or is not receiving a service that they need, such as occupational therapy. Expulsion hearings can also be a problem for parents, because many realize that their minority child is far more likely to be expelled or removed to an alternative school than an Anglo child.

The quality of education at many alternative schools, and the potential for negative peer interactions alarm many parents. While the school, the parents and the advocate should never excuse poor behavior; it is appropriate to make sure that concrete evidence of guilt is indeed present. In some disciplinary removal hearings, it is best for the parents to hire a lawyer as their advocate.

The best way for you to gain experience as an advocate is to volunteer in your community. Often the mere presence of another person who is supportive of the parent at a special education meeting will give the parent more of an opportunity for his or her concerns to be heard. If the school is insistent on putting its needs before those of the child, the advocate can step in and express concerns that the parent may be too timid to articulate.

The advocate can also either serve as an additional interpreter or ensure that an impartial interpreter is brought to the meeting. The advocate may also want to bring a tape recorder for, especially complicated meetings so that what was said can be reviewed at a later time. One thing that an advocate should know is that the parent always has the right to request a continuance of an ARD if they are not satisfied with the results.

If you are an effective advocate, word will spread within your community, and you will get more requests for assistance. It is recommended, that if your goal is to serve every child, that you operate on a sliding scale basis. You may want to charge from $20 to $75 an hour, plus travel time, and take on a few “pro bono” cases.

After enough referrals begin coming in to start your business, you can set up a website to promote your services and interview potential clients over the phone or in-person before you decide to work with them. There are parents out there who enjoy causing problems for the administrators, as they may hold a grudge against the school or something else ultimately unrelated to the well-being of their child.

These are not people who you want to work with. Your goal should always be the well-being of the child, not to serve a hidden power agenda of the parents. You should also try to avoid seeing the school as “the enemy,” as often administrators have their hands tied as far as resources are concerned. Nevertheless, that does not mean that you should give up your fight for the child.

If enough advocates begin to enter our system, it will change, and all children will benefit.

As you become familiar with how each school and school district in your area operates, you will become more effective at your job. Know that you are doing a valuable service—providing a voice for those who need one the most.

As you become

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