Reflections of a Special Education Lawyer

Yesterday, I traveled to Rockford, Illinois, to give a presentation on Special Education Law to a group of parents of children with autism. The parents had arrived early on a Saturday morning, anxious to hear how to navigate the labyrinth of the special education system. I agreed to trek nearly two hours away on this early morning to give people information that hopefully would help them advocate for their children.

This is my 18th year practicing special education law, a career shift inspired by my own efforts to advocate for my son. The first year of my practice, in a combination of serendipity, skill, experts, determined resourceful parents and circumstances, I handled my first autism case. Ultimately, that case went to the 7th Circuit and represented a victory for parents of young children with autism. At the time, I had no idea that following the T.H. v. Palatine case the world would experience what felt and still feels like an epidemic of autism.  In my naivety, I thought that schools would take notice and parents would be empowered to request research-based interventions for their children. This happened on a small scale.

However, yesterday I was struck by questions that reminded me that despite the fact that recent CDC statistics now indicate that 1 in 50 children have a diagnosis of autism, parents are still struggling mightily to get educational interventions for their children. The parents in the audience  were a mixed group. Many could not afford an attorney. They were desperate for information, asking for specific language they could use to make their schools listen. Several special education teachers were in the room and they too wanted to know how to help the children and parents get much needed services.

The parents asked questions and clearly didn’t know how to respond when their school answered by refusing their requests for summer school. One family told me that they were not sure what to do because their district told them that “they didn’t offer extended school year for anybody.” The parents couldn’t afford an attorney and couldn’t pay for a summer program. I provided resources to the Illinois State Board of Education and links on the web that they could use to advocate for their children. I offered to help them if they needed more assistance.

The stories continued in the question and answer period following the presentation. The parents were told by their school districts that there was simply no money for the resources they were requesting. The parents understood the answer. This was a problem they shared with their school districts. Almost everyone in the room believed that things would get worse for their kids with the upcoming funding cuts.

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