Advocating for Parents in Special Education

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Parents, what do we do when we learn that our child/children has a learning disability? In some ways, we want to deny it and say that they are being labeled for having too much energy or maybe they prefer a specific subject more than others. Disability is a broad term for anything that is considered not the norm. Well, I have a different approach with that word. I like to use the term different ability because we all are different, especially when it comes to learning.

Disabled means Differently-abled


If you have a child in special education, the first thing you must know is that you (the parent/parents) are in control of what kind of accommodation your child gets. This is set up by an Individualized Education Program or IEP. The IEP according to the California Department of Education is “Each public school child who receives special education and related services must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Each IEP must be designed for one student and must be a truly individualized document. The IEP creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities. The IEP is the cornerstone of a quality education for each child with a disability.”

We must be proactive in researching resources for our children so when we meet with the educators, we know what to ask for. Many times, our children fall through the cracks because we did not know what to ask for or how to get it. You work as a team! It is not “you vs them.” Everyone works together because we spend most of the time with our children, not the teachers. You have to know how to work with them at home, and everyone should be consistent. If the teachers see that you are very involved, and there is a plan in place, then it is about making progress and seeing what works best for the child. If you disagree with the educators’ conclusions about your child’s disability, then it is okay to have your child assessed by another therapist or doctor. You can talk your child’s pediatrician for a referral of agencies that help examine children who may have a disability. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are agencies that work with people with disabilities, such as Regional Center of the East Bay, Ed Roberts Campus, etc.

I know some children who were labeled as being on the spectrum for autism, and even when the parents disagreed with the label, they used that label to get all the services to help their children. Suppose your child has a form of learning disability where they get speech therapy and pulled out for reading or other skills that need improvement. If the child is assessed to having a severe learning disability, then the disability is changed to that in the IEP. When that happens, they can receive all kinds of services that is related to that disability and get more than speech and academic support. They can get extra time on exams, visual support, and other support that would not have been offered due to what the child was previously labeled.

This is when parents can say, “I want this, this, and this” for my child and it has to be provided if it is documented in the IEP, and then the ball is in the school’s court. That is a legal document and if it is not provided, the school can be held liable. Parents, you are in charge of this. Not the principal, not the teachers, or therapists. YOU! Do not let them give you the minimum. You tell them you want the maximum. I am telling you this as an educator, as a parent, and as a former student who had an IEP. The IEP is only for K-12 and it is not forever. It is confidential and it is only for school purposes (it does not have to be known outside of your immediate family). You want to ensure that your child gets a proper support in education.

Disability Access

Having a disability is not a bad thing when you know how to help them be self-sufficient. There are many successful people who have a disability and many can overcome it when they learn how to use it. I have a hearing disability, but I know American Sign Language and I got interpreters and other accommodations at school once I learned that they were available. I can only speak of the San Francisco Bay Area since I have been involved in disability rights and accessibility for a long time. Parents, especially parents of color, you are in control of your child’s education. If you are truly concerned, do not be afraid to ask for help because there are places and people who can help you. Now, we have the technology and knowledge that was not available 20-30 years ago. Do everything you can to get your child equal access to a quality education.

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Joy Elan

Joy Elan

Joy Elan is an award winning author and spoken word artist from Oakland and Berkeley, CA. She received her BA degree in African American Studies at UC Berkeley and her MA degree in Education at Stanford University. Her books are available on (poetry, non-fiction, and fiction genres). For more information, go to