As the Number of Children Diagnosed with Developmental Disabilities Grows, More Parents Face the Daunting Task of Managing Their Children's Special Education Programs

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), September 30, 2007 | Go to article overview

As the Number of Children Diagnosed with Developmental Disabilities Grows, More Parents Face the Daunting Task of Managing Their Children's Special Education Programs


Byline: The Register-Guard

As the number of children diagnosed with developmental disabilities grows, more parents face the daunting task of managing their children's special education programs. When things go well at school, everyone benefits. Unfortunately, the opposite also is true. Children can languish or develop more dysfunctional behaviors when forced to remain in the wrong learning environment.

Parents of school-age children with disabilities need a wide base of knowledge that is not required of parents with typically developing children. Newcomers, in particular, may have trouble figuring out whether their child is receiving a free and appropriate education as required by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Sometimes, problems arise when parents and school districts disagree about what constitutes an "appropriate" education.

Many parents don't really understand special education law. To compound matters, many parents new to the system are confused by the educational jargon thrown around by special education professionals.

Caring for a child with special needs can be exhausting and time-consuming in and of itself. Still, parents need to make every effort to understand their children's needs and rights. They are ultimately responsible for their children's development. Many parents need help tackling this challenging job. Talking to parents of other special needs children is one of the best ways to learn how to navigate the special education maze.

There's power in numbers. Parents should talk to each other about the good, the bad and the ugly in Lane County's school districts. They need to discuss the good teachers, and also the ineffective ones. They need to identify caring and competent administrators, as well as arrogant and indifferent school bureaucrats.

Each eligible child's educational program is driven by an "individual education plan," a document specifying the nature of a child's strengths and weaknesses, educational goals, related services needed and more. Parents are supposed to be equal partners with the school district in devising this plan.

However, parents often feel outnumbered in IEP meetings, where there may be as many as six or seven school district employees. One way to help level the playing field is to bring a friend or experienced advocate.

Tensions often arise when a parent thinks her child needs more services than the district offers. Although the law says school districts are not supposed to deny appropriate services because of budgetary concerns, the reality is that special education is expensive. When IDEA was enacted in 1975, the federal government promised to pay 40 percent of the cost of educating special needs children. It never happened. Right now, the feds cover only 17.2 percent of Oregon's special needs education costs, although they've pledged to gradually increase this amount until the promised 40 percent is reached.

In the meantime, an IEP meeting sometimes can resemble a poker game. A parent may ask for more speech therapy, for instance. The district might offer one 15-minute session a week, and lead the parent to believe this is the most anybody gets. But if parents know children with similar disabilities who receive speech therapy three times a week, or for longer sessions, they know their request is not outrageous. Sometimes parents are told they're the only ones who expect a certain service - only to find out later that other parents have successfully made exactly the same request.

Sometimes, things go along fine with no major problems for years, only to take a downward turn when a child's needs change. This happened to me.

My son Jalen, who has significant developmental disabilities, was happy in his kindergarten-through-fifth-grade special needs classroom until he was 10 years old. That's when he became more aware of the feelings and experiences of the people around him. …

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