In 1966, when my sister was two, she was diagnosed with a severe hearing impairment. Her pediatrician told my mom that she should be institutionalized and that she would not likely complete more than an eighth-grade education.
Fast forward four-and-a-half decades. My sister has been married for 19 years, has two beautiful daughters of her own, her associates degree, and works as a child care provider to a group of very lucky children – a far cry from the pediatrician’s prediction when she was first diagnosed with her disability.
My mom was a fighter for the rights of her special-needs child. She navigated the world of hearing education, sent away for correspondence course materials to supplement my sister’s education, and my parents even uprooted the whole family from Chicago to San Francisco so that my sister could attend a highly respected hearing center.
Thankfully, the expansion of educational access in 1990 through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required states to provide public education reflective of the individual needs of children with qualifying disabilities. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) must be offered for each qualifying child. But assuring that your child’s needs are met best requires diligence and hard work by the parent.
Here’s an overview of must-dos:
1. Know if your child qualifies for an IEP. Children between 3 and 21 who have one of thirteen disabilities are guaranteed an IEP. Check with the Department of Education to see if your child qualifies.
2. Schedule an IEP meeting with your child’s public school. Attendees should include at least one parent, a school administrator, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and someone who has knowledge of your child’s evaluation, such as a school psychologist. Under certain circumstances, the qualifying child also has the right to attend.
3. Bring an advocate or support person to the IEP meeting. A trusted friend, therapist, or spiritual leader can help you by writing down possible questions or concerns, acting as an extra set of ears, and picking up anything that you might miss.
4. Ask questions. You have the right to understand what is being discussed at the meeting, so ask questions. Lots of them.
5. If you aren’t satisfied, appeal. You have the right to mediation or a due-process hearing if you have already voiced your concerns without resolution.
6. Keep meticulous records. Start a binder of relevant paperwork, including meeting notes, communications from the school, and medical records. If you ever need to refer to something, you’ll have it at your fingertips.
7. Request progress reports and attend a yearly update meeting. Your child’s plan must be reviewed by the entire IEP team yearly; assert that right and stay involved.
Assuring that your child receives the best education possible is paramount to success throughout life, so give it your best effort. Given the right opportunities, children can far exceed our highest expectations. I know my parents felt tremendously proud watching my sister in her cap and gown as she received her degree.