My name is Margaret Vogt and I have been a special education legal assistant since 2007, most recently joining the Cuddy Law Firm, P.C. in 2012.
However, I have been advocating for individuals with disabilities since 1989 when my daughter, Diana was born at 26-weeks gestation and weighed just 1 and a half pounds. Her lungs were under-developed and she continued to have severe respiratory issues throughout her childhood.
She spent most of the first 2 years of her life in the hospital and was very medically fragile until she reached her teens. Although early intervention was available, she was too ill to participate in the program on a regular basis. She was unable to go to pre-school so her first educational experience was attending kindergarten. I remember well reading with horror those first evaluations from the school district as they revealed the extent of her deficits. I remember the early Committee on Special Education meetings and struggling to understand the terminology and the system. I remember sobbing for hours after going to visit a recommended program and confronting the fact that Diana probably did belong in a class with students with such severe disabilities. I also remember my outrage when I first realized that not everyone in the system had my daughter’s best interests at heart.
As I grappled with the reality of Diana’s disabilities (denial is very, very powerful), I felt I needed much more information about the systems that would continue to have such a powerful influence over Diana’s future. I became involved with then OMRDD, now OPWDD, at both the local and statewide level to understand what they had available to help Diana. I also became a parent member for my school district (Yonkers) and began attending as many CSE meetings as I could to expand my understanding of how things actually did and should work in the special education system. I took every course, attended every seminar, spoke with every person I could find who could give me the information I needed to help Diana. I was invited to join the Commissioner of Education’s Advisory Panel on Special Education to represent parents of students with disabilities. In my 12 years there, I learned more than I can say about the issues affecting the delivery of special education services in New York State.
Several years ago, I received a job posting for a special education legal assistant from a friend. At the same time, I was ready to re-enter the work force and it occurred to me that I might be able to actually build a profession, using my knowledge and experience to help other families and children get appropriate special education services. I reconnected with Adrienne Arkontaky (the attorney who posted the position), a long time friend who practiced in the area of special needs planning and special education law and my career as a special education advocate for a law firm began!
Our clients come to us with children with all kinds of disabilities, from all walks of life, from Sullivan County to the tip of Suffolk County, and with all kinds of educational experiences. They have in common the belief that their children have not received the kind of special education that would allow them to make the kind of progress they are capable of. My role at the Cuddy Law Firm is to review each child’s educational records, discuss in depth with the parents (or primary caregiver) their concerns, develop an appropriate educational plan and a strategy for obtaining necessary services, and implement that strategy with the school district, usually at CSE meetings but in other ways as well. Having the backing of a law firm dedicated to representing families in special education matters is so helpful in my work.
Because our firm also does guardianships, estate planning and assistance with obtaining governments benefits for families with disabled children, my days can also include working on 17A guardianship petitions, preparing advance directives, witnessing the signing of Wills and Trusts, helping clients access government benefits including SSI and Medicaid and/or preparing for appeals of OPWDD eligibility decisions.
Although there are not, at this time, any credentials or specific professional requirements needed in New York State to “advocate” for families, I believe that to be a successful special education advocate, you need very strong negotiating skills, a clear understanding of special education law and the various regulations, deep empathy for the strong emotions families and their children are feeling and the ability to “think on the fly” and roll with the punches. A thick skin and good sense of humor also help. You also need a good car. I rack up many thousands of miles a year going to CSE meetings.
In closing, I love this job. I love to get those calls and emails from clients telling me that their child is doing so much better with their new program. I love to see clients gain peace of mind and hope when their children flourish. What can be better than helping others avoid some of the heartaches and mistakes you made yourself?