From the moment my now 8-year-old son was born, our family has navigated the mazes of social
services and public special education. My son, who has Down syndrome, is entitled by federal law to an
education and various other services to support his development and maturation.
These services include a variety of therapies, depending on his individual needs. U.S. citizens born with or who develops
some type of life-changing disability is entitled to a number of federal
protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This law makes it
possible for children who have debilitating physical infirmities to have a
teacher or tutor come to their home and teach them. This law also gives
families with children who are in public schools the right to call a meeting
regarding any part of their child's education at any time. This meeting is where
teachers, administrators, counselors, therapists and the parents come together
to create a specialized and personalized plan for the child's development, known as the Individual Education Plan (IEP), for the child.
1. As a parent of a child with special needs, you want to be
sure that your IEP entitles you to the right to call a meeting at any time for any reason.
It doesn't matter how "small"
your concern might appear to someone else. If you ever feel your child is not progressing
under the terms of the plan, or if you'd like to add or remove a term of the
agreement, you can schedule a meeting to address your concern.
2. The IEP is a legal document.
It's admissible as evidence in
court should something go wrong. With this in mind, be thoughtful before
signing it. Your signature is saying you agree to the educational plan for your
3. You lead the team.
though your child's teacher, therapist(s) and specialist(s) are professionals,
you are their boss. They work for you and your child. If there is something you
want, an IEP meeting is where it needs to be requested. Any special needs
around travel, one-on-one care, behavioral plans and educational advancements
that you desire should be addressed in this document.
4. Never hesitate to invite
other professionals to participate in an IEP meeting.
It's always helpful to
have a person who isn't a part of the school system attending. If they work
with many children with special needs, they tend to know the laws and the
rights of families in connection with the services to which they're entitled.
The perspective of an outside professional can be very helpful.
5. Do your research.
Educating a child with special needs can
be a huge endeavor depending on the level of care and specialized attention
needed. With this in mind, it is also a very costly experience that the average
family cannot afford. Do your research to discover programs that will assist in
this process. The Regional Center, which is a federally funded and nationwide
agency, is the gateway into the services for those with special needs and for disabled
persons from the time of birth. The Regional Center and the school district
share responsibilities, and at times the Regional Center might pick up the
slack in an area that the school district does not shoulder well.
Although children and people with disabilities have a great
deal of protection under the law, I've discovered that knowing your rights is
what will make the difference. It is rare for schools to offer services and
tools without being asked to do so.
Let's say, for example, that your child has
behavioral challenges, and a therapist outside of the school recommends a
one-on-one therapist in the classroom the entire day. For the school this means
an additional salaried employee, but for you it means getting your child what he
or she needs. You will request an IEP meeting to ask for this support, and it's
your right to do so. The school can decline to meet your request, but it has to
offer something else that will adequately support your child.
Special services are expensive, and special education is an industry
in which costs can quickly balloon. If the school district is looking for ways
to cut costs, and it often is, the special needs programs are frequently
targets. But if you know and assert your rights, services supporting your child
cannot be withdrawn, underfunded or refused by law.