I while ago, I wrote a tribute to Eunice and Ted Kennedy, and their legendary contributions to special education advocacy. In that piece I commented that part of why parents of children with disabilities are at a disadvantage in taking on their school districts is that there is a constant learning curve among this group. The school district personnel and administration often have an extensive history in understanding special education laws, but a parent's need to know about the IDEA and other related statutes is, by its very nature, time-limited.
For most families, they learn about their child's rights only long enough to get them through to high school graduation.
While some parents are on that track from very early in their child's life, many others don't even begin to learn about special education advocacy until their child is in middle or high school. They learn what they need to know for those years, and then they move on with their children to the next stage in life, which might include new battlegrounds, like disability discrimination in college, employment, or housing.
School districts benefit from the fact that they are usually more experienced in this adversarial process, as line after line of new parents scramble for information.
It is for this reason that the “veteran” parents out there, who have seen the special education system from start to finish, are such valuable resources to other parents who are new to the system. Unfortunately, though, those who are informed are not available to those who are uninformed, and so the cycle goes.
Parents of adults with disabilities, please do not let your impact be mere footprints in the sand, ready to be washed away by the next wave.
I got a very recent lesson on this subject. Here in Connecticut, the State Department of Education is considering significant revisions to our special education regulations. A Public Comment hearing was held this week, and we had a pretty decent turn-out, due to some last-minute publicity among the parents' advocacy community. One mother got up to speak, and she pointed out how shocked she was that she, a former public school teacher, should find herself in a place where she might have to sue her school district over her child's special education program.
She would never have believed she would do such a thing, until an autism diagnosis and resistant school district forced her to learn the special education legal system.
In her testimony, this mother called upon the parents who have come before her to remain in the community. She realized in hearing some of those parents speak that their insight is priceless. While I can provide a context and a history to my clients in my special education law practice, that can only go so far. Much more important are the PARENTS who have lived it, breathed it, and, when necessary, taken on the system.
So I call out to those parents: do not forget the parents who come after you, who are in desperate need of your guidance, wisdom, understanding, and yes, perspective.
Imagine how differently you might have handled your son or daughter's education if only you knew then what you know now. Wouldn't you have loved to have heard from a parent who'd been through the entire process before? On a daily basis, my clients wonder whether they will ever make it through to the other side. You who are on the other side of this massive, unwieldy, confusing, intimidating, frustrating, and vital special education system…please find a way to reach back. Many, many families need your help.