I had planned to have a large family and be a stay at home parent. I had pleasant, although maybe a bit naïve, visions of my life as a stay at home parent. It would consist of baking cupcakes, planning birthday parties, carpooling to sports events, attending dance recitals, scheduling play dates and entertaining a house full of friends. Fast forward to present day and my house is rather silent with few friends or children scurrying about, no carpooling necessary, frozen nuggets for dinner and cookies for dessert and I work as a Special Education Advocate. Fifteen years ago, I didn’t even know what a Special Education Advocate was, let alone that I would become one.
My life changed drastically when my son was born. I was 24 weeks pregnant and he was born prematurely and medically fragile. It was nothing I could have been prepared for. After a very difficult and emotional few years and several surgeries, he was stable. I was excited to add to our family and I began the process of adopting my daughter. I was so relieved that things would finally be “normal”. Then life threw me another curve ball. My son was diagnosed with Autism. My head was spinning. What do I do now? I had no idea where to begin. What educational rights did he have? What services and/or supports was he entitled to? I began the search for guidance and support. I was surprised to find there wasn’t much help available and started attending every workshop and seminar that I could find.
A presenter at a Lay Advocacy Workshop I was attending recommended that I apply for a position as a Special Education Advocate at her non-profit agency and as they say, the rest is history. This profession has changed my life. I have been formally advocating for families for over 8 years. Recently, I decided to open my own practice, privately advocating for families. This is not just a career for me; it is my passion and a defining part of who I am.
I know how complicated the special education system is and how difficult it can be to navigate. Many parents are unaware that special educational advocacy services exist and try their very best to navigate this complex process on their own. Many end up feeling frustrated, angry and defeated. As a parent, the emotionality of the process can take a toll and can even reduce the ability to effectively advocate for your child. It is very helpful to have a partner in this process, one with specialized training and knowledge of special education laws who can help you collaborate with your school district to obtain the appropriate services and supports your child needs. Here are some details about what Special Education Advocates do and how they can help.
What is a Special Education Advocate?
A Special Education Advocate supports and empowers families of children with special needs in obtaining appropriate educational programs and services. This is accomplished while promoting collaboration with school districts and service providers in order to facilitate the creation of an effective and appropriate Individualized Education Program (IEP) and the acquisition of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). A Special Education Advocate takes a child centered approach and focuses on the educational needs and outcome for that child through a solid understanding of the laws, evaluative data, effective communication and negotiation. Keep in mind that there are Special Education Advocates who work privately, for non-profits and for attorneys. This article will focus on private Special Education Advocates and their role in working with a family.
Special Education Advocates are not to be confused with a parent member. A Parent Member is a parent within your school district who also has a child with a disability. At your request they can attend your IEP meeting. Parent members are not there to advocate for your child, and although some are outstanding, the role is not the same. Parent members generally explain school district programs and may answer some of your questions.
What do Special Education Advocates do?
- Review and analysis of educational records
A Special Education Advocate will perform the essential and critical task of reviewing all relevant educational records and analyzing the documents. An advocate will be able to coordinate the information and determine your child’s current needs. An advocate will help you to determine, among other things, whether your child is making progress and is receiving the appropriate programs and services under the law. An advocate will further ensure, that realistic goals are in place and that your child has been fully evaluated in his/her areas of suspected disabilities.
- Translation of legalese and special education acronyms
The overwhelming amount of evaluative data, and endless array of acronyms can be daunting and interfere with understanding what rights you are entitled to as a parent. A Special Education Advocate will help guide you through the process, explain your rights as well as your child’s rights and help you gain a better understanding of the educational evaluations of your child.
- Prepare parents for the IEP meeting
Once the document review is complete a Special Education Advocate will spend time discussing their analysis and explaining the results of the evaluations. An advocate will discuss your options and provide you with realistic goals and give you the various scenarios that may be presented at the IEP meeting.
- Emotional Support
Many times you may feel outnumbered sitting alone in an IEP meeting filled with school district personnel. The support of having someone who has taken the time to understand your child and prepare you for the meeting will help you focus on the details and feel more confident.
- Attendance at IEP meetings
Besides the emotional support, a Special Education Advocate will ensure the needs of your child are clearly defined and expressed. An advocate will convey your child’s need clearly, verify the IEP includes all relevant information, and confirm that the programs, services and goals are appropriate.
- Review of final IEP
Once you have agreed to programs and services, a Special Education Advocate will review the final copy of the IEP. Unfortunately some parents skip this step and are surprised to find at the following year’s meeting that information was omitted or agreed upon goals were inaccurate. Review of the finalized IEP is imperative in ensuring the accuracy of the document.
- Decide when legal representation is necessary
A Special Education Advocate should respect the process and determine if their involvement is no longer helpful if an impasse has been reached. A school district may deny services and at this juncture, a competent advocate will indicate whether or not to continue advocating or if a referral to an attorney is necessary. Attorneys have specialized training, understand case law, and know how to protect your legal rights in the event of a due process hearing.
My desire to be a stay at home mom, baking cupcakes, carpooling and entertaining never became reality. My reality is different, but in my opinion, better. My son, with all of his daily struggles, has given me a strength and a purpose like no other. Learning and training for his rights has helped me to obtain appropriate services which have enabled him to make meaningful progress. Having a special needs child has allowed me to find my true purpose; helping families like my own to navigate a process which seems to make little sense. It is very emotional and frustrating, and sometimes, just plain difficult. For the past 8 years I have advocated for each and every family as if they were my own son, and I will continue to fight to empower and assist parents in getting what they are legally entitled to. You should not have to navigate the special education process alone. Special Education Advocates are available to support, guide, empower and educate parents through the special education maze. You are an important member of your child’s special education decision-making team, and an advocate will be there with you throughout your child’s school years.