One of the most important things that I do in my practice as a special education attorney is to try to empower parents of children with special education needs. I tell my clients up front that one of my main goals of representation is to get them to a place where they either don’t need my services at all, or need them only occasionally. I am always thrilled when I am able to resolve a dispute between a family and their school district quickly and without a lot of acrimony.
You shouldn’t have to have a lawyer with you at every meeting you have with your child’s school for the rest of their educational career.
One of the best ways to avoid that is to become informed as a parent about not only your child’s specific disability, but about your child’s special education rights as well. I know it might not seem like fun, but I assure you, you will be in a much better position to advocate for your child throughout his or her education if you have at least a working knowledge of the issues you are likely to encounter at various developmental and procedural stages.
What you don’t know about your child’s special education rights can hurt you.
If you do not learn about the IDEA and other federal and state laws that protect you and your child, you find yourself at the mercy of others to explain it you. And while nobody expects you to become a special education attorney (and if it makes you feel better, I have represented dozens of children over the years whose parents are attorneys), you should avail yourself of as many opportunities to learn about the process as possible.
You might even want to ask your school district to fund your attendance at a conference as part of “parent training” under the IDEA.
As I’ve written about before, “parent training” is a related service under the federal special education laws. Accordingly, if you learn about a seminar, workshop or conference on the particular disability which your child has been diagnosed with, or even about special education rights, then consider requesting that your school fund your attendance at your next IEP meeting. They might say no, but they also could say yes. And if they say no, at least you have documented your request, and perhaps insulated yourself from later claims that the reason your child wasn’t making progress was because of you.
Join parent networking organizations related to special needs advocacy in general, and your child’s particular disability in particular.
There are, thankfully, thousands of organizations in the United States which provide information and support to parents of children and adolescents with disabilities. I have listed a number of them in my “Links of Interest” portion of my blog home page. They exist on the federal and state levels in most major areas of disability, and sometimes there are even local organizations like SEPTAs (Special Education PTAs) in your town. At the national level, I highly recommend joining COPAA, (www.COPAA.org) the Council for Parents Attorneys and Advocates, as well as signing up for the free online newsletter from Wrightslaw.
Join these groups. You will learn a lot from other parents who have been through or are currently navigating the special education system.
I recognize that most parents of kids with special education needs have enough on their plates without having to become experts in either their child’s disability or the IDEA. I really do. However, you will ultimately save yourself a tremendous amount of lost time, not to mention frustration, if you arm yourself with information. Otherwise, you will sit in your child’s IEP Team Meetings completely overwhelmed, and you will soon lose control over your child’s educational destiny.