Advocating for Your Child with a Disability
I first read the poem, Welcome to Holland, written by Emily Perl Kingsley when I was a nineteen-year-old college student. I enjoyed the poem as a future special educator but did not understand the depths of it until I became a mother myself thirteen years later. As a parent, you want nothing but the best for your child(ren) and will do anything to make sure they are healthy and thriving; this feeling becomes even more magnified when your child has a disability.
I sat in hundreds of Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings over my years as a special educator and met parents that were the foremost advocates for their children. I learned how to be a better teacher and mother from these pioneers as we came up with plans to help their children reach their maximum potential. Here are a few simple things you can do to stay actively involved in your child’s education and ensure you are their biggest advocate:
You know your child best. The parent is the only person on the team who knows the complete child: how the child functions at home and in the community, the child’s medical and academic history, and the child’s interests, preferences, and desires.
Build relationships. When you communicate on a regular basis with the people who work with your child, there will be less chance of misunderstandings when it comes time to plan for the next year. If you suspect a problem, talk with your child's teacher.
Know the law. Familiarize yourself with the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and know your child’s rights.
Review the paperwork. Ask to have copies of the evaluation and the draft IEP given to you at least five days before the meeting. This will allow you to review the paperwork at your own pace and prepare topics to discuss.
Prioritize your child’s needs. Everything you want for your child is not equally important. Make a list with three columns: what your child really needs, what you want for your child (but may be willing to compromise on), and what would be nice to have (but that you would be willing to give up).
Remember you are part of a team. School professionals have knowledge and expertise in a specific area, but they are only a temporary part of your child’s life; you will always be the parent. You are the only permanent member of your child’s IEP team. Treat the other members of the team with respect even when you do not feel respected.
Stay calm. Teachers and other school professionals involved in the team are there to help your child. You may disagree with them on certain topics, but stay calm and collected. If you know you are going to discuss topics that may derail the meeting, practice ways to defuse tense situations beforehand. Bring a relative or friend with you to take notes during the meeting. If all else fails, you can always table the meeting and reconvene at a later date.
Ask questions. You must fully understand your child’s education plan: the accommodations, modifications, goals, schedule, and services. Do not be afraid to ask for clarification before you sign the IEP and give your consent to special education services for your child.
Keep paperwork. Maintaining documentation is crucial to advocating for your child. If it’s not in writing, it did not happen.
Learning how to be a respectful yet effective advocate for your child with a disability means walking the tightrope between being overbearing and disconnected. The most important thing is to believe in yourself as a parent. No one knows your child better than you; you have been there since their first breath. There is no better advocate for their needs.