Special education can be overwhelming for parents, especially those whose children have complicated needs. Due to the requirements of special education law, schools inundate parents with a barrage of paperwork that can seem arbitrary and redundant. While navigating complicated special education protocols, parents might feel lost. Some schools handle special education better than others do. Parents frequently develop concerns about whether or not schools are providing what their children really need. When facing such doubt, parents often turn to special needs advocates for guidance.
The role of special needs advocates might need clarification. They are professionals who support individuals with disabilities by consulting with and offering advice to these individuals and to their families. Much of the work special needs advocates do focuses on interactions with schools. They work with parents to ensure schools are providing adequate services to students with disabilities. They help parents who might be struggling to understand paperwork and procedures. They accompany parents to special education meetings. The support they offer is tailored to what each family needs. Their work is often as much about consultancy as it is about advocacy. Indeed, a gray area exists between the two. Some families need more of one than of the other, but often they need both.
Backgrounds vary drastically between special needs advocates. Those who work primarily as consultants tend to have been teachers for at least part of their careers. Advocates who focus on championing the rights of individuals often come from a social work background. Some advocates have their own businesses, while others work for agencies. In certain cases, an organization responsible for some other service like respite care or specialized equipment will appoint an advocate to work with a family. Just as often, families hire advocates. Hiring advocates alters the relationship from what would exist between a family and a social worker.
Currently, most states have no certification or licensure for advocates, so parents might have difficulty filtering for quality when searching for an advocate. The National Special Education Advocacy Institute offers a board certification, which could be a worthwhile credential parents might wish to seek. Membership in an organization such as the Council for Exceptional Children could be another attractive credential. Such membership doesn’t automatically denote expertise, nor does a lack of membership suggest a lack of competency. In a field as loose as special needs advocacy, parents still desire for some echelon of legitimacy.
Although most advocates have relevant professional backgrounds, some become advocates by simply calling themselves such. They might not have pertinent degrees or training. Variance in experience exists in any field. However, without a need for credentials among advocates, no assumptions can be made about what expertise one might bring to a discussion. A parent might hire someone who turns out to be a wonderful asset. They also might hire someone who is a reckless hack. Knowing the risk, parents not only should be careful about who they hire, but they should be clear why they need to hire anyone at all.
When searching for a special needs advocate, parents can base their search on what they need. If parents are seeking advice regarding what to include in an IEP or in determining whether or not a proposed IEP has merit, an advocate specializing in consultancy might be best (some might refer to themselves as educational consultants rather than advocates). Any advocate espousing to have expertise in special education documents should have a background in special education that includes teaching. Further experience in special education administration could be a plus. Of course, university teaching experience or publications can establish expertise, but most advocates won’t have either. Parents might be wise to skip an advocate who isn’t forthright about having at least some kind of credentials.
Parents might need less advice about documents and more support with securing services. An advocate whose experience is housed in social work might be desirable for such a pursuit. A licensed social worker might be qualified to assist in this way. This person also might review documents, but would have a greater role at IEP meetings in which needs and services are discussed. Having a knowledgeable and vocal party to voice concerns and stress needs can help parents get services to which their children are entitled.
Disability might determine advocate selection. Some organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy and the Muscular Dystrophy Association employ advocates who assist parents in matters of special education protocol. Particular advocates might have training or work experience relevant to the needs of children with autism or behavior disorders. Once again, parents might use such experience or affiliations as filters for finding the best match.
Many advocates do have legal training. Some attorneys who specialize in special education law might describe themselves as advocates. A few distinctions must be made. An attorney becomes necessary when a parent refuses an IEP and wishes to pursue due process. Advocates can’t assist with this, nor can they give any form of legal advice. Their role is to advise on matters of programming or to petition for services prior to mediation or due process. When a parent needs to pursue legal action regarding due process, lodge a formal complaint to the state, or respond to some form of negligence, an attorney is necessary. Attorneys might be able to give the same advice as advocates, but the cost will be significantly greater. The flip side to this is that if a legal case develops, attorneys’ fees often can be recouped. Advocates’ fees generally can’t be. A reputable advocate will acknowledge when his or her expertise stops and an attorney is needed. Sometimes advocates will do this immediately upon being contacted, depending on the case. The important distinction to remember is advocates can only advise on matters of programming or appropriate services. They can speak on behalf of parents, but they can’t engage in legal disputes or offer advice regarding these. Attorneys are needed for any of that.
As with any other hired expert, parents should expect a high level of professionalism from an advocate. Judging advocates by the look of their websites might not be fair, but it can be a way to estimate the advocate’s attention to detail before hiring. Ease of contact and timeliness of responses are important. Most parents would prefer the use of clear language, free of educational jargon. Customer service and rapport are vital in a relationship with an advocate. Even when an advocate has matching credentials, these other elements need to be in place for the relationship to flourish.
Working with advocates might be necessary when parents feel uncertain about their children’s programming. Selecting the right advocate requires an understanding of why the advocate is needed and a refined search for those with relevant credentials. Parents can search independently, or they may wish to tap members of their school’s parent organization for suggestions. National disability-specific organization might be able to help as well. For parents feeling lost, understanding that competent advocates are available can be a lifeline. With some patience and prudence, parents can connect with the right advocate.
Written by Jeff Hartman