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Be your own best advocate

How to avoid lawyers and still get what your child needs out of special education.

By Valle Dwight

Sarah Jacobs has two sons, both with a learning disability. Yet she has managed to shepherd them through the New York City school system without ever having to consult a lawyer or an educational advocate.

“I have been negotiating the system for 15 years and have never breathed the word lawyer,” says Jacobs. “I have been really successful getting my sons what they have needed and have helped them to negotiate for themselves.”

Ideally, all parents would like to be able to say the same thing. But advocating for kids in special education is often a grueling task that can lead to court. This fact doesn’t make it easy on parents. The legal route is exhausting both emotionally and financially, so, whenever possible, the best choice is to avoid it — without sacrificing your child’s services.

Raquel Scharf-Anderson, an educational advocate in Arizona, has worked with parents for 13 years, helping them navigate the system lawyer-free. Over the years, she has seen some common issues and concerns that come out of having a child in special education. She has also gathered a raft of useful ideas on how to work with the system to get what your child needs.

Honesty is the best policy

One of the most important things for parents to do, according to Scharf-Anderson, is to be honest about their child’s disability and learning needs. “It’s important for parents to be forthright about their child’s issues,” she says. Many of the parents she speaks to have a notion of special education from 20 or 30 years ago: basement classrooms, stigmas, and a lower quality of education — none of which they want for their child. So they hide information about their child or try to minimize their issues.

Many parents are also in denial about their child’s diagnosis, Scharf-Anderson has found, and that denial makes it difficult to work effectively with the school. “Parents have to come to terms with their child’s issues,” she says.

Jacobs seconds that thought. “As a parent, it can be difficult to accept that your child is somehow less than perfect,” she says. “If your child's vision were impaired, you would have no problem being sure that they got glasses. Getting help for these cognitive impairments falls into the same category.”

Jacobs has perfected the art of acting charming, funny, and sometimes confused to diffuse many potential angry confrontations. “If need be, I pretend to be stupid,” she says with a laugh. “I’ll say things like ‘I'm confused’ or ‘I don't understand.’ Even if you know that the person you are speaking to has screwed up royally in terms of your child, blame some other outside force for messing up so they can save face and fix things for your child.”

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"I love this article,I really want to learnd more. Thank you so much!!!"
"Basically whether it is even possible to get what your child needs in a public school will depend on the quality of the service providers and the culture of the school district administrators. Frequently lawyers have to be brought in because the school staff is either not qualified or do not give the amount of needed services to for the child to make progress. This means that the district will have to pay an outside provider to do what the child requires and many school admin hate that. "
"Double check with Wright's Law on signing... districts often implement without signatures. Also, some districts will ask for signatures and state, 'this just signifies that you were present.' In fact, this put the cart before the horse. "
"I've learned the system, laws, and rules. Every letter every request I make goes to thier attorney who manages to not answer any of my concerns. I'm glad your able to get a FAPE but it's a battle for most of us"
"You can record IEP meetings. You just have to let the individuals sitting in on the meeting that you are recording it. I am back in school to get a special education degree because I got tired of being told that I as no the educator and that the doctors are not as well!"
"It is hard to remember and understand what is said in the IEP meeting so I aways recorded it so I could listen and understand what they said. Good idea to not sign that day and think about what they have offered. Also, take a friend or family member with you so you have a friendly face with you. Unfortunately I had to get a lawyer as we had 4-5 IEP meetings a year. It worked for my son."
"My wife and I went through this with our town's Special Ed. Director where he refused to provide any service that the town's special ed. teacher's were not already qualified to provide. Basically he had a round hole and would take every square peg (read child) and pound it through. It did not matter that the child did not benefit or that the law said he must provide a specific service even if his staff was not trained to provide. He even made the mistake of denying the service in writing only to be reprimanded by the state. Bottom line was even if we hired a lawyer and were backed by a court decision the time for the service would have passed (1-2 years)and our child would have not gained anything. There's is no punishment for lame brained or even criminal mis-management of special services. We ultimately enrolled our child in a private pre-K in the next town, where the needed service was available, and our town was obliged to pay for it there. The law on this changed t! he next year but we got the service when our child needed it by looking beyond the obvious and doing an end run around the ignorance of one man."