Recently I wrote a blog about the general difficulties facing parents who are raising a disabled child. This week I want to address one of those specific guidelines – ensuring a quality and appropriate education for your child. For many children with disabilities, they cannot meet the traditional school criteria because of either mental, physical or other special needs. For such children, an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a crucial step. What is an IEP? As the name implies, it is a written education plan that is specifically tailored to your individual child rather than a general plan used for all children. Keep in mind that an IEP is not something that your disabled child may be entitled to. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that IEP’s be developed for all students with disabilities.
Who creates an IEP? For every child, there is an IEP team which generally consists of the following people – the parents, the child’s teacher, the child’s special education provider, a public agency representative and perhaps other providers such as physical therapists. Depending on the age of the child and the specific disability, the child may also be part of the team. I want to emphasize that while the IEP team is filled with so-called experts in education and disability, the most important person on the team is the parent. There are two key points to keep in mind: 1) you, as the parent, are the best advocate for your child; and 2) never be afraid to stand up to the experts.
On the first point, I encourage you to read as much as possible and become informed on the subject, e.g., what new laws are coming out, what new technologies may be available. Only that way can you truly become an advocate for your child. There are a number of excellent sites on the Internet that give a wealth of information (see links below).
Parents of disabled children tell me that they have learned the hard way that there is only one person who truly cares what happens to their child – and that is the parent (or parents as the case may be). It is easy to go into an IEP meeting thinking that the administrators and teachers have your child’s best interest at heart. That’s not necessarily the case. While these people may be caring and decent people, they have other interests to consider – budgets, time constraints, other students, etc. You are the only one who is truly devoted to getting what is best for your child. Also, you are the one who knows your child best. Just like when you go into a pediatrician’s office and describe your child’s symptoms and behavior, the same is true when attending an IEP meeting. You have interacted with your child more than anyone else. You see changes, skills, abilities (and disabilities) more than the folks who only see your child at school. Share your knowledge and make sure the IEP team gets the benefit of your expertise as a parent.
On the second point, it can be difficult as a layperson to question those whom we see as experts. We have all been trained to defer to those with more experience. Unfortunately, some “experts” have been trained to talk down to others. A small personal story — years ago I took my grandmother to the doctor for a small skin rash. The doctor said it was psoriasis. I asked him how he knew it was psoriasis and not eczema, a similar skin condition. I will never forget his answer. “Because,” he said, “I’m a doctor.” He may as well have said, “Shut up and don’t question my expertise.” If someone on your IEP team ever adopts such an attitude with you, stand up to that person and demand answers. It is your child whose future is at issue, not the teacher’s.
As for resources, the rise in awareness of disability and IEP’s has created an entire field of special education law. Not that you need an attorney to obtain an IEP, but you should be aware of your child’s legal rights. One excellent resource that comes highly recommended from parents is Wrightslaw.com, which contains a wealth of information on disability law and special education.
No doubt a number of you have had to deal with IEP issues for your child. What has been effective for you in terms of getting the best plan for your child? What hasn’t worked? What legal entanglements have you run into? What advise do you have so that others may benefit?
Some Source References:
For general information on IEP’s (and one with a special focus on Maryland), I would recommend the following sites:
Schaffer v Weast (a summary of the Supreme Court’s decision on burden of proof in IEP matters)