I still remember the day before my son’s first Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. I was so nervous that I wrote down everything I wanted to say about my child in a notebook. Thankfully, the IEP team was enormously supportive, and he was placed in a well-fitted classroom, where he learned and played a lot.
Yet my IEP meeting experience also sparked my intellectual curiosity. I wanted to know what rights my child had in the IEP process and the extent to which the school would be responsible for any incidents or emergencies. I was thirsting for comprehensive understanding and knowledge of the IEP because I knew that I was responsible for making decisions on behalf of my son’s best interests. I soon realized how my role would be vital in his development and learning process. Subsequently, my son motivated me to continue my law studies. My career goal became to be the best possible special education lawyer and advocate.
My first year at law school was the most hectic time in my life. My husband and I ended up pulling our son out of daycare and sending him to a half-day special education class. We took turns taking care of him for the rest of the day. When I had to stay up at night to finish my assignments, my son often sat next to me and played with toys until I went to bed. I can’t even find words to describe what I felt in those moments. Still, I believe my decision to go to law school was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Looking back, all I have learned in school – analytical reading, thinking, and objective and persuasive writing – became valuable assets on my path to parental advocacy. For parent-advocates who are just beginning their journey, here are three tips that I have learned from my experiences as a mother and a law student.
1. Make sure everything is documented in writing.
If someone asks me what I remember most about the law during the first year, I would say the importance of a written record. Although not every piece of written communication between parties would be considered legally binding, written communication still has significant value. Well-written communication conveys a clearer message and can be considered as important proof for future reference. When it comes to a dispute with the school or other institutions, good records will play a vital role in supporting your side. So, when I have questions about anything related to my child or the IEP, I prefer to communicate by email. Also, written communication gives everyone more time to think and respond to the message. After having a discussion with the school over the phone or in person, it is helpful to send an email to confirm what was discussed for further consideration.
2. Read carefully and pay attention to details.
When I received a copy of the IEP for the first time, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the technical and educational jargon. I printed out, skimmed it first, and then perused all the terms and descriptions. It is necessary to read a copy of the IEP carefully before signing because the school must get parental consent to start or change special educational services. If you don’t, you may not know whether the plan is properly responding to your child’s individual needs. Also, no detail is too small. I took enough time to review the documents after my son’s first IEP meeting, and I requested a correction for a minor error on the section detailing his present level of educational performance. It may not be a major issue that would affect the general picture of the plan, but I think such care and attention to detail is a positive indication that I really engage in the whole process as a parent. Parents’ supportive participation and relationship with the school will eventually result in a higher quality IEP and better educational outcomes.
3. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
Another thing that I gained from legal education was the value of speaking up and communicating. Sometimes, professors forced me to answer random or challenging questions on the spot, which was quite a scary experience. However, it turned out to be good training for advocacy. I now feel more comfortable when asking questions or expressing my opinion when communicating with my son’s teachers. Because the IEP is a long-term plan, communication with the school is essential. Sometimes, I will encounter a situation where I don’t entirely agree with what other professionals say about my child. I often find it not easy to say no. As a result, my intention to be respectful or appreciative was occasionally clouded by unclear and unconcise messages. However, I have learned that ambiguous words make situations worse and stressful. So, when speaking my mind, I look up precedents, read about similar situations, and spend more time drafting or editing my email. Preparation is key. I am still learning to find a delicate balance between assertiveness and acceptance as I work to become a better advocate.
Parental advocacy is important for children with autism and learning disabilities. Parents know and understand their child best as a whole person. Further, autistic students should be encouraged to develop self-advocacy skills. Self-advocacy will improve self-awareness and independence, which are essential to adulthood. Parents’ advocacy provides a unique and excellent model to guide children on the path to their own successful self-advocacy. At first, the word “advocacy” may not come naturally to us. We may initially think that it requires special skills or training. But in actuality, I don’t think there is a clear boundary where you can say that advocacy “starts.” Every communication with doctors, therapists, and teachers can be part of advocacy. And the great thing is that we can learn and grow from these experiences. As I work on becoming a better advocate, I appreciate every educational and learning opportunity and will continue my advocacy journey with the hope that someday my son will raise his voice for himself.
Amy Jung is a mother and a law student at George Mason University. She is passionate about special education advocacy for children with autism and learning disabilities. She is also interested in learning and exploring diverse legal and policy issues surrounding autistic people and their families.