The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes public education available to children with disabilities ages 3 to 21. The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) reports that 7.3 million students received special education or related services under IDEA in 2021 and 2022 alone, comprising 15 percent of all public school students.
Special Education Services
Special education includes services that address a child’s unique needs. Children who are eligible receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP). While special needs classrooms are available, federal law states that students must have access to the least restrictive environment. The least restrictive environment requirement permits many children with IEPs to participate in standard classrooms while getting additional support.
Navigating the school’s special education regulations and procedures to ensure children receive necessary services can be demanding, as parents often lack knowledge of applicable laws and the school system. In a study by the Rapid Project, parents of children with disabilities reported facing more challenges with children’s school plans and obtaining support services than parents of children who do not have special needs. Families with disabilities also experienced greater emotional distress.
By providing knowledge and guidance, special education advocates can support a student’s best interests and help lessen family stress.
The Role of Special Education Advocates
Special education advocates work directly with students and their families to help them fully utilize available services. They may have degrees and training in education or law or bring years of personal experience from helping their own child with special needs, but no formal licensing requirement exists. Some lawyers also provide special education advocacy.
These advocates can empower students and their families in several ways:
- Creating a strategy for working with the school
- Explaining your child’s rights under federal, state, and local regulations
- Identifying and explaining available services, programs, and accommodations
- Determining and conveying the meaning of test results and reports
- Planning IEPs in conjunction with staff, parents, and the student
- Writing demands and complaints to schools and helping parents submit requests
- Prepping parents for IEP and 504 meetings and attending them
- Reviewing special education documents, making sure they are accurate in advance of meetings
- Explaining the complex system of special education laws
In addition to helping your child access resources, a special education advocate, or IEP advocate, can help identify overlooked factors that could be affecting your child’s education, such as undiagnosed learning challenges.
You may want to explore hiring a special education advocate if you feel overwhelmed by the special education system, believe your child’s needs are not being met, or need help addressing an educational challenge.
Considerations When Hiring a Special Education Advocate
When you choose to work with a special education advocate, your family can benefit from their knowledge and assistance. Since the role requires no formal licensing or certification, individuals offering special education advocacy services may vary in their background, education, and experience. Some organizations, such as the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, provide training for parents and special education advocates.
When selecting a special education advocate, ask about their qualifications and work experience, and consider interviewing multiple candidates to find the best fit for your child.
Finding a Special Education Advocate
In addition to the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the following organizations can provide recommendations for special education advocates:
- Parent Training and Information Centers in your state, offering free information to families of children with disabilities
- Your school district’s Special Education Parent-Teacher Association or Parent Advisory Council
- Local chapters of advocacy organizations, such as Decoding Dyslexia and Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)
Some attorneys offer their services as special needs advocates as well. A qualified, local special needs attorney could help your child access educational opportunities. In addition, a special education attorney can work to protect your child’s classroom rights and can take legal action if the school fails to provide services and accommodations.