1. What is the special education law that can help my child with a disability?
The foundation of today’s special education law was passed in 1975 and enacted in 1977. This was Public Law 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. In 1990 EHA was renamed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. IDEA was most recently reauthorized in 2004. The Purpose of IDEA is to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education or FAPE that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living.
It’s important to note that the law only guarantees an appropriate education and not the best education. Best is a four letter word and Parents should learn to replace it with the word appropriate when discussing their child’s special education needs.
With regard to IDEA a free appropriate public education means an education at public expense, under public supervision, that meets the state’s education standards and complies with the Child’s IEP.
2. What is the benefit of an IEP for my child?
The cornerstone of IDEA is the IEP. An IEP is an Individualized Education Program for children who qualify for special education by their local public school district. It is not an Individual Education Plan. Why isn’t it a Plan? As the old saying goes, “plans are made to be broken!” A program on the other hand must be followed!! The IEP is a legal document that must be followed and is a roadmap on the appropriate method to educate your child based on their unique needs.
IEP’s are organized in a certain sequence for a reason. Parents and Educators need to remember to start at the beginning and work your way to the end which will be the services and placement your child will receive. The place to start is by updating the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance. This will help you determine your child’s strengths and needs. I have never met a child that didn’t have many strengths. In my opinion, for the IEP to be successful you must make it strength based. Meaning you will teach your child to compensate for any weaknesses by using their strengths.
Once you know their needs you can then write IEP Goals and Objectives. After goals have been written then you will move on to the appropriate services and placement. Just remember, needs drive goals and goals drive services in an IEP.
3. What is Special Education & Related Services?
Special Education is not a place but rather, it is specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. Special Education can happen in any environment and very often does happen in a general education classroom. As a matter of fact Special Education must be performed in the least restrictive environment which means that children with disabilities should be educated with children who are not disabled to the maximum extent possible.
In General the term Related Service means services designed to enable a child with a disability to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) as described in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) as may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education. The Related Services most people are familiar with are Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy and Transportation. Some of the lesser known related services include recreation therapy, parent training and counseling and educationally related psychological services but there are many more.
4. How do I go about starting to get tests to see if my child might have special education needs?
To request assessment to determine if your child is eligible for special education you should submit a written letter to your child’s school. If your child is preschool age and not enrolled in school yet then direct the letter to the School District’s Special Education Division. Otherwise, address the letter to your School’s Principal and hand deliver asking for a date stamped copy for your records. The written request will trigger specific timelines that the school must follow. The easiest way to remember these timelines is 15 – 15 – 60.
- The school has 15 days to provide the parents with a written assessment plans after receiving the request for assessment;
- The parents have at least 15 days to sign the assessment plan and give their informed consent; and
- The school has 60 days to conduct the assessment after receiving a signed assessment plan from the parents and hold an IEP meeting to go over the results and determine eligibility.
Please double check these timelines with your State law but generally speaking it will take 90 days from request for assessment until an IEP meeting is held. When drafting the letter make a point of stating that any general education interventions that the school would like to try should not slow down the timelines established under IDEA.
5. What determines if my child is eligible for special education services?
Children may receive special education services if they have one of the following 13 eligibilities, autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual Disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, or visual impairment including blindness and who by reason thereof, NEEDS special education and related services.
It is not enough to just meet the definition of one of the 13 eligibility categories you must also show a NEED for special education and related services. The School must use multiple methods and strategies to determine special education eligibility and need. This could include grades, scores on State achievement tests and assessment results to name a few. Showing need includes more than just academics; it could include the social/emotional well being of the child as well.
The IEP meeting is supposed to be a collaborative effort between the school team and the parents. The school’s job is to explain the results of the evaluations and make their recommendations for goals and services. The parent’s job is to give their feedback regarding their concerns, the evaluation results and recommendations which they feel might help their child in school. The goal is for both parties to come to an agreement on an IEP that will help the child receive an appropriate education.
6. What do you recommend for parents who think their child might have special education needs?
The first step in determining whether your child has special education needs is via an assessment. An Assessment is the process of gathering information about a child to make decisions about a potential disability category, strengths, weaknesses and areas of need. An assessment can be either formal through standardized tests or informal through observation and includes collecting, recording, scoring, and interpreting information about a child. Assessments for special education should be administered in all areas of suspected disability. These areas could include cognitive functioning, academic functioning, speech and language, fine motor, gross motor, auditory processing, sensory processing, visual processing, social emotional, behavior, neuropsychological, memory, attention and development.
The School District will need to perform their own assessments but the Parents may also get private assessments. If the parents pay for a private assessment they should submit the assessment to the School to consider as part of the IEP process. The School is only required to consider the private assessment and is not obligated to follow it. Private assessments can be very helpful if the parents disagree with the School’s assessments.
If there is a disagreement over the assessments results performed by the School the Parents are allowed to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at public expense. An IEE is not a private assessment but rather is an “independent” assessment performed by an assessor not employed by either the School or the Parents. If the Parents request an IEE the School must either agree to pay for the IEE or take the parents to Due Process to explain to a hearing officer why their assessments were accurate.
7. What are some of the top special education resources for parents of children with special needs?
As a professional advocate I talk to many parents who cannot afford an advocate let alone an attorney. These same parents still need significant help managing the IEP process. I created Special Education Advisor (SEA) to help educate all Parents so that they can become their child’s best advocate. Besides SEA there is many other wonderful organizations with similar objectives. One of my favorite resources is the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. Another wonderful resource is local Parent Training Information Centers. You can find a Parent Center near you by reviewing the listing on the Parent Technical Assistance Center Network. The U.S. Department of Education also as a great website dedicated to IDEA. I would also recommend Parents try and find local support groups and special education PTA’s in their area. Local organizations will have more specific knowledge of how your School District functions.
8. What do I if I disagree with the School about my child’s needs?
When a dispute arises between a parent and the school in an IEP meeting there are a few methods that can be utilized to work out the disagreement. Remember you have the right to disagree with the IEP in whole or in part. Never agree to anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
Most School Districts will have at least one Informal Dispute Resolution (IDR) system in place that can be employed to work out the dispute. IDR will look different in every school district but most likely it will involve a meeting or phone call with a District employee who was not at the original IEP meeting discussing the disagreement and trying to come to a successful resolution. IDR is not mandatory and can be skipped if the parents want to exercise their rights under IDEA’s procedural safeguards.
IDEA has very specific procedural safeguards to protect the rights of the child. If your child already has an IEP and you disagree with any part of it, the School District must maintain the current educational placement pending any proceedings. This clause most commonly referred to as a “Stay Put” means there can be no reduction of services while the disagreement is being worked out. If you chose not to use IDR, then the disagreement is typically worked out through a Mediation or Due Process Hearing.
If there is a disagreement over the assessments conducted by the School District the parents have the right for an independent educational evaluation to be paid for by the School District. If a parent requests an independent educational evaluation the school district must either a) agree, or b) disagree and take the parents to due process to explain why they disagree.
9. What can I do to help my child with special needs prepare for an independent future?
When reauthorizing IDEA in 2004 Congress found that “while graduation rates for children with disabilities continue to climb, providing effective transition services to promote successful post-school employment or education is an important measure of accountability for children with disabilities.” With this in mind, IDEA requires Transition services to be provided through a transition plan that is a part of the child’s IEP.
The transition plan must be included in the first IEP to be in effect when the child turns sixteen -- or earlier, if deemed appropriate by the IEP team. Since the transition plan must take into account his or her interests and preferences, the student's input is crucial to the process and they must be invited to the IEP meeting.
The transition plan has two parts: goals that are measurable and based on age-appropriate transition assessments, and transition services needed to assist the child to receive desired post-school outcomes including preparing for life, education and a career after high school. The focus should be on learning life skills and promoting adult independence.
10. What are some programs and resources for my child with special needs to use as they set out for college and become independent?
Your child’s IEP will end at the earlier of graduation with a diploma or aging out (at 22). At that point, a summary of Performance (SOP) must be generated for all special education students who are leaving school. The SOP outlines the students academic achievement and how they function in activities of daily living. The SOP will also include recommendations about how to assist the students in meeting post school goals. The SOP is not part of the IEP but is a separate document.
While the IEP ends upon graduation from high school most colleges and universities have a Disability Services Office for students with disabilities. Once out of high school, your child is considered an adult, as such is responsible for speaking up for his or her needs. Your student will contact the college’s DSO on their own and make their needs known. If the parents wish to speak to the DSO they will need the student to sign release of information paperwork. Some of the accommodations that may be available in College include extra time on tests, note taking, tape recording lectures and many others.