Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for parents of disabled children to encounter problems with their child's school. The following advice, which originally appeared as
Some Common Sense Steps to Resolving Disagreements Between Parents and Schools,
although written with the learning disabled child in mind, is excellent and equally applicable for the parent of a blind or visually impaired child. Many of the suggestions will also be of benefit for college students who are advocating for themselves.
Learning Disabilities Association of America (1997)
A. Before a meeting
1. Review your child's file and be sure you understand your child's disability and how the disability affects the way in which your child learns and needs to be taught. If you have any questions, talk to someone who is familiar with [visual] disabilities.
Be sure you understand the terminology, the significance of test scores, and what the diagnosis means in terms of everyday learning. Don't be bashful about asking questions until you understand.
2. Have a clear vision of what your hopes and expectations are for your child's future. Be realistic and optimistic about your goals for your child. Communicate your ideas clearly to the professionals who work with your child. The choices you are making about your child's special education program today should be based on your short and long term goals for your child's future.
3. Know the laws which determine the rights your child has to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). Understand your rights and your responsibilities in the special education process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
4. Prepare a list of your issues, then prioritize them and decide what the most important issues are for your child at this time. Think about what you want your child to be able to do. Be clear about what your child needs and stand firm in your position, but be willing to compromise on less critical points. Understand the difference between a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to which your child is entitled and what you would consider an ideal education.
5. Believe in yourself, your rights and your knowledge of your child's strengths and needs. Be prepared to share information about what motivates your child, what works at home, and what has not worked in the past. Focus on the issue of your child's needs, do not let personalities or past differences become the issue.
B. Communicating effectively at a meeting
1. Engage in Active Listening to make sure that you understand accurately what the others are saying. Paraphrase what you have understood them to say in order to be sure that it was what they actually meant. Be willing to listen to and consider other points of view. Others may have valuable insights to share. Ask questions. If you're not sure you understand something, ask for an explanation until you do understand it. Ask about the reasons for the school's position and why they think their proposal will offer the most benefit to your child. Often what appears to be a disagreement turns out to be a misunderstanding.
2. Don't get personal or defensive with the other participants at the meeting. Assume that they have honorable intentions and want to resolve the issue in your child's best interests.
You can reduce the level of defensiveness by using I statements, such as "I am frustrated because this program isn't working" instead of "You are frustrating me because what you're doing isn't working." Attack the problem, not the person. Be sincere, honest, positive and assertive, but not aggressive.
3. Take someone with you to the meeting. A friend, another parent, . . . volunteer can support you by taking notes and helping you keep your focus on the immediate issue. This allows you to concentrate on listening and communicating.
C. Good practices and operating procedures
1. Follow the Chain of Command and discuss your concerns or issues with your child's teacher. Allow the teacher the opportunity toaddress your concerns and work toward solving any problems. If you can't obtain results, find out who has the authority to make the necessary changes and move up, level-by-level. When you discuss your concerns, don't just complain about what is not working. Wear your problem solving hat, be creative, offer solutions, and offer to look into community resources.
2. Create a Paper Trail by keeping accurate, written records. Have a written record, including dates and names of all phone calls and meetings. Follow up any verbal agreements with a letter [or e-mail] confirming your understanding of the agreement. Keep any notes and correspondence you receive, as well as IEPs and evaluation information. Keep copies of all your own correspondence concerning your child.
3. Keep Your Files with information about your child organized and current. When you go to meetings, take the relevant information with you, possibly in a notebook, indexed in a manner that makes it easy for you to find what you need during the course of the meeting.
D. What can you do when you've reached an impasse?
1. Call your State Department of Education special education coordinator. A clarification of state and federal special education requirements might help to resolve the issue. In addition, the State can frequently provide your district with technical assistance and information with regard to staff development and training, assistive technology, consultative services, and model programs.
2. An Administrative Review or Resolution Conference might help resolve the problem. Sometimes a higher level school district administrator brings a new perspective to the issue which can be helpful in finding a solution. Or, the administrator can authorize resources which will resolve the issue.
3. Contact your district's Civil Rights Coordinator to find out if your issue is a violation of civil rights laws, such Section 504 or ADA. Your child is entitled to any reasonable accommodations he/she needs in order to have equal access to a free, appropriate public education. This might include, among other things, having the school provide taped textbooks or allowing the use of a spell-check device.
4. File a Child Complaint with your State Department of Education. If you think that your disagreement with the school involves a violation of state or federal special education regulations or statutes, you may follow your state's Complaint Procedures as outlined in its State Plan. Under IDEA, every state is required to adopt written procedures for receiving, investigating and resolving complaints regarding the administration of programs funded through the US Department of Education. State complaint procedures can be used by parents for complaints which raise systemic issues, individual issues or, in lieu of the due process hearing system, to resolve disagreements over any matter concerning the identification, evaluation, educational placement, or provision of a free appropriate public education to their child.
5. An impartial mediator might be able to help you and the school reach an agreement. Ask your special education director, your superintendent or the person in your district who is responsible for special education services if the school would agree to using the mediation process. Often the mediation process is most effective before you have undertaken Step 1. However, you can request it at any time during the process. Many states have a roster of qualified mediators who can be brought in to help you and the district resolve an issue. Some states have funding to cover the costs of mediation at any time, some only after parents have filed for due process, and some not at all. A district is free to use their own funds to pay for mediation at any time, and frequently will do so since it is less costly than due process.
6. When all else fails, you may request an impartial Due Process Hearing for issues which involve a disagreement about evaluation and eligibility for special education services, a free appropriate public education and the I.E.P., and your child's educational placement.
Note: It is likely that the "reasonable accommodations" that a blind or visually impaired child may need will be different than those discussed in this article.
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