Legal Rights vis a vis Learning disabilities

Ben Foss,  Executive Director of Disability Rights Advocates, was a recent guest lecturer at Parents Education Network in San Francisco.  This talk provided some advice for parents who are stymied by the  schools systems when they are being an advocate for their child and his or her  learning challenges.

Mr. Foss is a dyslexic, a fact that  was identified early in elementary school.  His parents were his advocates with the  result of him being placed in special education classes. His nonverbal,  picture-based intelligence was found to be in the superior range. His greatest  difficulty was written language. In middle school he was mainstreamed into  regular school classes where he was able to develop his strengths, all the  while hiding his dyslexia. Law School pushed him to the breaking point. He could no longer hide the fact that he was dyslexic. Thus began a journey of self-discovery that ultimately led him to become an activist in the field of disability rights.

Mr. Foss recommended five steps parents and their child can take with the school systems:

1.       Identify the issues.

It’s important to get a profile of your child. Engage your child and find out where their issues lie. Outline what are the approaches that give your child difficulties. Look for markers. Is the school too demanding for  your child?  Remember, your responsibility is to support your child, be your child’s advocate. State your goals  to solve this issue.

2.       Empower  the child

a.       Check to be sure the child wants to stay in the school.  Engage the child on the child’s terms asking them what they want.

b.       Sit with your child and teach them why a test is important.

c.       Describe to your child how their attitude affects how well they will do in school work.

d.       Teach them to stand up and be independent, speaking up for themselves.

e.       Explore all forms of technology with your child to see where there is a tool that makes the child independent.

3.       Know the law.

Early in your child’s education process find out the requirements for the SAT, the nation’s most  widely used college admission exam. While the date of that exam for your child may be ten years away, the  documentation that you keep will have a major impact on the conditions under which your child takes this test. The goal is to serve the child while not having to engage the law in the process. While it’s important to have the law the goal is to resolve the issue without having to use the law force. Mr. Foss recommends you consider the law a bodyguard that never does anything but looks menacing. And, remember:  document, document, document.

4.       Engage  the school.

Be an advocate for your child at the school. And, have your child learn how to advocate for themselves at school. Let them show the school administration and teachers that they want to become independent.

As a parent, advocate for the accommodations you feel your child needs . Remember, your child wants to keep up with fellow students.  That fact is very important to them. Accommodations can make that possible.

Mr. Foss described his story about creating a device which made him independent.  After Stanford Law School he joined Intel and created the Intel reader which takes text and reads it aloud.  Now he could access the written word much more easily. Mr. Foss commented that there are many similar products now available.  He said some   kids resist using this machine because of their concern that they are not learning in the same way as their classmates. The goal is to help them  see that they can learn faster with the technology.  Sometimes this helps them overcome the embarrassment of using the machine.

5.       Fine Tune your approach.

a. Remember: teachers don’t think about your child. Most just want the learning challenged kids to be sent to special education classes. This means the teacher will just have to deal with the “regular” student.

b. Re-examine your strategy with your child.  Make sure it includes discovering how to help them overcome their internal monologue that tells them they are the black sheep.  If you ignore this behavior, it will stay with them.  Parents must make overcoming this attitude  part of your strategy with your child.

2.   Know the law.  There are two critical laws that protect students in  education.

“504”  – Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law prohibits discrimination in ANY program that receives federal funding.

  • “504 Plan” It’s an individualizd assessment and plan.  This plan must reasonably accommodate your child’s specific learning disabilities so that
    his/her needs are met as adequately as the needs of students without
    disabilities. Examples of reasonable accommodations:

– Extended time, preferred seating in the front of the classroom, access to assistive technology.

  • “IDEA”  Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  This Federal law applies
    exclusively to education and provides special education to ensure that the
    students benefit from their education. There are stringent requirements: eg:
    the student must qualify under a “specific learning disability. Contained
    in IDEA is the IEP Plan, (individualized  education plan) which states the education must meet the needs of each student’s unique learning strategies.

Parents must request assessment for school evaluation in writing. The IEP  meeting is to involve the student, parents, administrators and teachers. The discussion will focus on:

1.  Present level of performance

2.  Goals and objectives for student

3. Services required to achieve goals

Measurements of success

Progress reports, Discussion of services (“placement”).
There is a strong presumption in the law that students should learn alongside the general education students.

Parents remember:  document, document, document.  Year after year be sure to have a folder with summaries of all the discussions and other pertinent information.  You will need it when the S.A.T. time comes to get accommodations for your child.

Should the above fail, here are some organizations to approach for help:

  1. Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund:   In Northern California, 510
    644 2555.
  2. National Center for Learning Disabilities “IDEA”  parent guide.
  3.   Wrights Law:
  4.   U.S. Department of Education – Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.
    note: this website, although thorough and accurate, is highly technical