By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute , Linda Broatch, M.A.
It’s no surprise that Candace Cortiella, a respected national expert on the educational rights of children with learning disabilities, believes so strongly in the power of parents as grassroots advocates. That’s where her own history as an advocate began.
In 1990, when her daughter was seven years old and recently identified with learning disabilities (LD), Cortiella had just quit an “extraordinarily demanding” 15-year career as a senior executive with an upscale department store chain. While she was looking for another job, she decided to take some time to “find out what this whole special education thing was about.” It turned out to be a life-altering decision.
About that same time, her school district had decided to radically change the way it delivered special education services. Previously, many kids with learning disabilities had been taught in segregated, self-contained classrooms. Without notifying or consulting parents, the district switched to serving all elementary-age kids with LD in regular education classrooms. Not surprisingly, as Cortiella recalls, “all hell broke loose.” And, as a result, she jumped into the advocacy arena with both feet.
Recently, we interviewed Cortiella, who is the founding director of the Advocacy Institute and writes periodic legislative updates for our website. We talked with her about the path she took from being an advocate for her own child with LD to advocating for the right to a “free and appropriate public education” for all children with LD, as guaranteed under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
How did you learn the ropes for being an advocate for kids with learning disabilities?
When you live in the Washington [D.C.] area, and you start getting involved with people who are advocates, they are very often also advocates at the federal level because of where we live. So it was kind of a quick track for me because the people who became my mentors, who were the leaders in advocacy at the community level, were the same folks who were doing advocacy at the federal level. One day we were talking about my little kid in my little school, and the next day they were saying, "OK, we’re all going to Congress tomorrow, and you’re coming along."
First the veteran advocates dragged me to Richmond to talk with state education officials and policy makers, and then to testify before the school board and to talk to school board members. I was really, to a great extent, reliant on the advice I was getting from the seasoned advocates in my community. They knew the law inside and out, and they knew the district inside and out. But when it came to having somebody go up and testify before the school board, they couldn’t do it because they didn’t have any kids in the system any longer. They forced me into a high-profile position that I have to say I wasn’t totally comfortable with because I was still so green. But that’s kind of the way you figure it out. Trial by fire, I think it’s called!
I went to conferences, I went to workshops, and I would spend hours talking with these mothers who had been around for years. I was very fortunate that they would give me those hours, explaining to me what the law said, and how good implementation of the law looked at the local level. I would spend time with my school people, as well. I spent time with our specialists at the state level; they were very helpful. Then, I became very active on advisory panels, both at the local level and then at the state level.
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