So you want to be a special education advocate? What do you need to learn? What skills do you need to acquire?
Expose Yourself to Advocacy Opportunities
The best way to become a good advocate is by exposure. If you wanted to catch the flu, you would hang out with folks who had the flu. If you want to become a good advocate, hang around with folks who do advocacy work.
Learn about Special Education, Law and Advocacy
Read everything you can find about special education, disabilities, and how children learn.
Remember that law is always changing. What you read today may change tomorrow because of decisions in due process hearings, appeals, and by courts. State complaints may clarify portions of the special education law. You need to spend time if you are to stay current on the the changes in law.
Join at least three organizations or information groups. Many organizations have great state and national conferences. There are often special sessions for advocates at these conferences.
Most organizations publish state and national newsletters for their members. Newsletter editors are always looking for fresh content. After you've read a few issues, offer to write an article for a newsletter.
Each state has at least one Parent Training Information Center (PTI). The staff at these centers serve families of children with disabilities in a variety of ways. Many PTIs provide advocacy training. Check the Directory of Parent Training Information Centers on the Yellow Pages for Kids site to see what training opportunities are available near you.
Join the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA)
Volunteer to Help
Try to hook up with a special education parent attorney. Offer to help the attorney (for free) prepare cases for due process hearings and IEP meetings. If you do this, you will learn so much about how to be a good advocate. You will also learn about things you can do that will jeopardize a good special education case.
You will begin to view your advocacy cases from a different perspective. You will understand why you always need to prepare every case as though it will end up in a due process hearing.
Practice Your Advocacy Skills
In addition to learning information, you need opportunities to practice advocacy skills. Offer to go to IEP Team meetings with parents. Offer to be a friendly face at the table. Assure the parents that you will not say anything unless they ask for your input.
You will see the games people play. You will see that parents wear "buttons" and that some school personnel know how to push these buttons. In time, you will be able to prepare parents so they do not become overtly emotional or angry when someone tries to push their buttons.
You will also learn about the players, their roles, and their personalities. You will recognize their tactics and strategies more easily because you are not emotionally involved.
So you want to be an advocate?
Meet Pat Howey
Patricia Howey has supported families of children with disabilities since 1985. She has a specific learning disability and became involved in special education when her youngest child entered kindergarten. Pat has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who have a variety of disabilities and she has used her experience to advocate for better special education services for several of them.
Pat began her advocacy career as a volunteer for the Task Force on Education for the Handicapped (now InSource), Indiana’s Parent Training and Information Center. In 1990, she opened her advocacy practice and served families throughout Indiana by representing them at IEP meetings, mediation, and due process hearings.
In 2017, Pat closed her advocacy practice and began working on a contract basis as a special education paralegal. Attorneys in Indiana, Texas, and California contracted with her to review documents, spot issues, draft due process complaints, prepare for hearings, and assist at hearings. In January 2019, she became an employee of the Connell Michael Kerr law firm, owned by Erin Connell, Catherine Michael, and Sonja Kerr. Her duties have now expanded to assisting with federal court cases.