Be your own best advocate
How to avoid lawyers and still get what your child needs out of special education.
Can't we all just get along?
IDEA 2004, the federal special education law, recognizes that disputes between parents and schools are sometimes unavoidable. Check out the steps the law takes to resolve those disagreements.
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.”