With September marking the start of the school year, we would like to repost the following article for parents who may be just beginning their experience with special education or who may have just discovered our website. We also encourage all our readers to take a look at our earlier articles for more information that may help you obtain an appropriate education for your child.
We entered the world of special education like most parents, with concerns about our child and a diagnosis we didn’t understand. Our experience began in preschool and continued through high school graduation, a span of fifteen years. Over these years we met many other parents of children receiving special education services. We listened to their stories and heard many themes emerge that corresponded with our own observations. As a result of this experience, we realized that every single year of a child’s education matters and that parents are the only constant advocates their child will have during these years. It is an enormous responsibility, but it can be an ultimately rewarding one.
One lesson our experience taught us is that the more parents know about special education, the more effective they can be as advocates for their children. Learning how special education works takes persistence because, like an iceberg, most of it exists below the surface of what parents can initially see. We have heard stories of school districts that are reasonable to deal with, but like us, you may encounter problems that are preventing your child from receiving an education appropriate to his or her needs. The keys to overcoming these problems are knowledge and organization. The tools you must use are research and a network of carefully selected professionals and like minded parents whom you have to identify and cultivate.
Parents Have Two Roles
Parents of children with special needs have two roles. The first, and most obvious role, is understanding and dealing with their child’s unique disability. The second, and more subtle role, is learning to navigate around the icebergs of special education. This second role usually comes as a surprise. Parents who have quite naturally focused on their child’s disability are often not prepared for how the special education system works. They assume that school personnel are the professionals who will know, and more importantly will do, what is best for their child. This assumption is all too often misplaced, because special education in many school districts has become an elaborate bureaucratic maze in which budget requirements are more important than doing what is right or even what is legally required. The result is confusion, disappointment, and lost opportunities.
Learn From Our Experience
Our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, is both a narrative of our personal experience navigating the special education system and a guide to help other parents translate our experience to fit their own situation. When we entered special education in the early 1990s, there were no online search engines or social networking sites, so it was difficult to find information and meet other parents with similar concerns. We felt isolated and confused. A book like ours would have changed the course of our son’s education. That is why we wrote it, so that parents who are now involved with special education can learn from our experience.
The realization that parents have the power to make special education work came to us while attending a workshop on transition planning. The speaker made the point that at a Team meeting most of the school personnel in the room actually knew very little about special education. Many understood individual pieces, depending on their specialties, but only the parents were in the position to see the whole picture. The workshop speaker encouraged parents to study the special education process, especially the laws, in order to understand their rights and protections. She also encouraged parents to study what a school district’s obligations are to a student because ultimately it is the parents’ responsibility for making sure that schools comply with the law. As the saying goes, knowledge is power.
Parents Do Have the Power
Our message is that parents can make special education work if they take the time to understand their child’s disability, their legal rights, and the often hidden agenda of school culture. We know that you, the parents, are the best advocates for your child. You must be proactive and organized, study the state and federal laws, and persevere. Doing all this will give you the information, the confidence, and the power to help your child get an appropriate education that will pay many dividends in the future. This will be the most important and rewarding job you will ever have. We hope our book will guide you and inspire you.
Judith Canty Graves