When we entered special education many years ago, we had never heard of a special education advocate. And if we had, we probably wouldn’t have hired one because we felt comfortable with our son’s Team members. Later, however, we realized that we had missed important opportunities by not having an experienced professional explain our son’s rights and the school’s responsibilities to us.
Going It Alone (Our Experience Without An Advocate)
In the early days of elementary school, the general education teachers were warm and nurturing. Teachers only had one class of about twenty children all day long, so the demands on them weren’t as great as on teachers in middle school and high school.
The special education teachers also seemed to make an extra effort to get to know us and our son. We were impressed by their sincerity and their efforts. But we discovered that sometimes the school culture and the administrative bureaucracy get in the way of that idealism.
By middle school, we found the nurturing environment and attitude fading away. The entire school culture changed. There were multiple teachers and much larger classes. Getting an appointment to meet with our liaison or the general education teachers was almost impossible. We found fewer opportunities to be involved in school life and to get to know the teachers and the other students.
Now we realized we were in trouble. Our son wasn’t making progress and the teachers didn’t have time to meet with us. By seventh grade we noticed that the goals in our son’s IEP were being changed without our knowledge or a Team meeting to discuss them. A friend suggested a special education advocate who she had used. We contacted that person and made an appointment.
What Does An Advocate Do?
We began by reviewing our son’s educational history with the advocate. Fortunately we had kept all his paperwork. The advocate helped us organize everything in chronological order, then she reviewed our son’s IEPs. Finally she explained to us that the school had committed multiple violations of the special education laws. Our trust in the school district was crumbling with each passing day.
We began to realize how naive we had been in those early years. Although everyone had been very nice, they had ignored opportunities to recommend needed services at a critical time for learning and sometimes even violated explicit special education laws. While it is possible that some of the school personnel simply did not know the law and what was required of them, it is also possible that they chose to not follow the law in order to save time and money on special education services the school should have provided.
Now we understood the importance of working with an experienced advocate. Had we been working with her in elementary school, she would have noted the violations and advised us on our rights when it could have helped our son the most. She also had a lot of experience working with other families in our town and would have helped us avoid certain situations unique to our school district.
How to Find an Advocate
There are no licensing requirements for special education advocates like there are for most other professionals you will encounter in special education. It is critical to check the training and credentials of anyone you are considering. In many states the federally funded Parent Training and Information Centers (PTI) offer advocate training classes. The Yellow Pages for Kids, maintained by the Wrightslaw website at www.yellowpagesforkids.com lists PTIs, advocates, and other professionals in every state. Finally, ask other parents with children in special education about advocates they have used.
Once you have one or more names of advocates you can contact, arrange for an interview, either on the phone or in person, and ask questions such as the following:
- Confirm the advocate’s training and credentials. They should match what you have already discovered through your research.
- Describe your child’s problems and listen carefully to the advocate’s responses. Try to get a sense of his or her style and personality and whether or not you feel comfortable with that person.
- Ask if he or she has worked collaboratively with your school district in the past. Someone who knows the people and programs in your district already has a head start.
- Finally, ask for references and talk to other parents who have used this advocate. Ask if the kind of help you are seeking is similar to what the advocate helped them with.
Although an advocate’s fees can be quite reasonable compared with other special education professionals you may encounter, if finances are an issue, there is a federal program, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, that can provide free advocacy help. The website: www.parentcenternetwork.org, contains links that will help you locate a group in your area.
How to Work With an Advocate
The role of a special education advocate is to help you understand the laws and advocate for an appropriate education for your child. There are many ways to achieve this goal. The two most common are:
- You can work with an advocate behind the scenes. This can help maintain your relationship with school personnel if you fear they might feel threatened by the presence of an outside professional.
- Have the advocate attend Team meetings and negotiate for appropriate services and accommodations. The advocate can help you understand the sometimes hidden dynamics in the room and keep the meeting on track. For more on how this can work, see our earlier post Surviving Team Meetings.
In some states special education advocates specialize in either legal or educational advocacy. A legal advocate, often referred to as a “lay advocate,” is not a lawyer, but has specialized training in legal matters that pertain to special education. Lay advocates can attend Team meetings, write letters, and negotiate with schools to help resolve problems. In some states they can even represent parents in due process hearings. Educational advocates specialize in making recommendations about accommodations and services based on a student’s disabilities. In general, there can be a lot of overlap between the functions of lay and educational advocates.
Ultimately, if you can only hire one professional, consider hiring a special education advocate.
Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves