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Special education champion to speak at workshop here

Overcame learning disabilities to become a lawyer

Saturday, September 20, 2003

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Peter Wright knows the challenges of special education from almost every angle.

As a kindergartner in Washington, D.C., more than 50 years ago, teachers thought Wright was borderline mentally retarded and mentally disturbed. They included descriptions in his files such as "fussy," "disorganized" and "too free with his fists."

As a parent of two sons with learning disabilities, Wright yanked the oldest out of special education classes when teachers said Wright's expectations were too high and avoided sending the youngest to the programs at all. Instead, he tutored both boys at home and today they have promising legal careers.

And as a lawyer, Wright successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court 10 years ago that school districts must provide appropriate education for students with disabilities, regardless of the cost. The court ruled that parents can sue and get reimbursed for sending their children to private schools that better help the youngsters.

"Too often public education lowers the bar [for students with disabilities]," Wright said during a telephone interview yesterday. "But when I was tutored, I had to work twice as hard."

Wright and his wife, Pamela, a psychotherapist, will present a special education workshop, "Emotions to Advocacy," from 8:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at McConomy Auditorium in the University Center at Carnegie Mellon University. The program, which is $60 for individuals and $90 for couples, is sponsored by Parent Advocates for Learning Support and Achieva. So far, about 300 people from five different states are registered to attend.

As nationally known special education advocates, the Wrights travel the country giving workshops for parents and educators to help them better understand legal rights of children with disabilities, methods for evaluating youngsters' educational progress and strategies for negotiating with school districts for changes in how students with special needs are taught.

So committed are the couple that they'll give today's workshop after evacuating their home in Deltaville, Va., on the Chesapeake Bay, Thursday because of Hurricane Isabel.

But Wright's personal experiences fuel his dedication.

His own learning disabilities, which include dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, were diagnosed when he was still young. With the help of intense tutoring, he learned to manage the challenges as he completed high school, college and eventually law school.

Before becoming a lawyer, he was a juvenile probation officer in Richmond, Va., and discovered that many of his clients had learning disabilities similar to his own.

After becoming established as an education lawyer, Wright successfully argued Florence County School District Four vs. Shannon Carter before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993.

The case involved Shannon Carter, then 16, who was functionally illiterate and suicidal. Her school district offered to provide special education classes three hours a week, but her parents contended Carter still would not catch up with her peers.

When school officials refused to pay for an all-day program at a neighboring district, Carter's parents put her in a private residential program and successfully sued the district in federal court.

The district appealed. When the case reached the Supreme Court, Wright argued on behalf of Carter and won.

Wright's story and the books he and his wife have written -- "Wrightslaw: Special Education Law" and "Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy" --- have inspired parents like Dona Wilfong of Fox Chapel, vice president of the 2-year-old Parent Advocates for Learning Support.

Wilfong said that after reading the Wrights' books, her two sons, who have learning disabilities, began excelling in school because she learned to lobby for the additional support they needed.

"If it wasn't for reading his book, I wouldn't have known how to do it," Wilfong said.

For more information about today's conference or Parents Advocates for Learning Support, call 412-963-2833.

Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884.

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