It's easy to become overwhelmed at the thought of arranging an appropriate education for your child with special needs. You have so many things to consider: your child's age and maturity level, the nature and severity of his or her disability, the school district's willingness to provide appropriate resources, and your own determination to seek expert guidance in order to learn how to become your child's best advocate.
Preparing to educate your child for a lifetime of personal and intellectual accomplishment is a task that requires an education in itself.
Laws protecting students with special needs
Two laws are critical to consider in developing an educational program for your child. Both laws guarantee a "free appropriate public education." Special needs advocates use that phrase so often they refer to it simply as "FAPE."
The first law you should know about is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This civil rights legislation "prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education," according to www.ed.gov, the Education Department's home page.
Under Section 504, a student in a wheel chair may ask for better maneuverability on the school playground. A child with diabetes may arrange to eat a snack during class to maintain her blood sugar level. A student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can get special help organizing his homework. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 extended such protections to most private sector businesses as well.
The second law--more important to those with severe disabilities--is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was first enacted by Congress in 1975 and most recently revised in 2004. The IDEA has stricter eligibility requirements but guarantees more services to children with special needs than does Section 504. Under the IDEA, children with disabilities are considered to be those who need special education and related services because of:
* developmental disabilities,
* hearing impairments (including deafness),
* speech or language impairments,
* visual impairments (including blindness),
* serious emotional disturbance,
* orthopedic impairments,
* traumatic brain injury,
* specific learning disabilities, or
* other health impairments.
Each state interprets the IDEA's eligibility and disability standards differently. A child who qualifies for special needs education in one state may not in another. Those who do qualify get an Individualized Education Program (IEP), an educational blueprint for achievement based on the child's unique intellectual needs and abilities.
A child's IEP is developed in special meetings with parents, teachers, school staff members, and sometimes even the child with special needs himself. It is reviewed at least annually. In general, unless the IEP states otherwise, the school district will educate the child with a disability in the "least restrictive environment" possible, often mainstreaming her with other students.
Creating a good educational program
Experts say parents and caretakers must take the lead in creating a child's IEP or risk being steamrolled by school districts with too many competing priorities.
"Research shows that parents who are most involved in their child's education have children who do better," says Linda Wilmshurt, assistant professor of psychology at Elon University in Elon, N.C. and co-author, with Alan Brue, of A Parent's Guide to Special Education: Insider Advice on How to Navigate the System and Help Your Child Succeed.
Brue, a school psychologist with the Bartow County School System in Georgia, says first grade is a "big turning point" for students and a time for parents and caretakers to be extra vigilant. …