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Cheney Free Press

Shedding light on special needs education

By John McCallum, Editor
July 3, 2009

Eastern Washington University and Northwest Autism Center host Wrightslaw conference

Understanding law can be difficult – especially education law and particularly the rules and regulations surrounding special education.

That’s why the staff at the Northwest Autism Center has teamed with Eastern Washington University and other area organizations to bring a powerful legal tool to Cheney. Wrightslaw is holding its nationally acclaimed special education law and advocacy conference at Eastern’s Showalter Hall Auditorium on Thursday, July 16.

NAC executive director Dawn Sidell views this conference as a must-attend event for anyone who is involved, or could be involved, with special needs children and not just children with autism. “You can end up being related to someone with a disability at the drop of a hat, it’s part of the life experience,” Sidell said, adding the entire community benefits from knowing something about special needs education, the methods and the legal responsibilities that go with it.

Founded by the husband and wife team of Pete and Pam Wright, Wrightslaw is a legal practice dedicated to helping families of children with disabilities. Pete Wright is an attorney who specializes in representing children with special needs, and has successfully argued cases involving such clientele before a variety of courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pam Wright is a psychotherapist who has worked with families since the 1970s. Besides Wrightslaw, they are also adjunct professors of law at William and Mary Law School in Virginia, teaching a course about special education law and advocacy while assisting with the Law School’s Special Education Law Clinic. They have authored several books on these subjects.

The conference at Eastern will focus on special education law, rights and responsibilities; tests and measurements to determine progress and regression; smart IEPs (Individual Education Plans); and tactics and strategies for effective advocacy. Sidell said all are crucial to special needs children’s educational experience, an experience that is the biggest part of their lives from ages 2 through 21, and which can hugely impact how they live thereafter. “We need to make it as productive as possible,” she said. “It’s essential to making the rest of their lives better, and achieving independence and quality. For one child, independence could mean navigating a hallway to get something to eat. For another, independence is being able to hold a job and get married.”

Sidell said anyone who is an educator should attend the conference, as should family members of special needs children, childcare providers and legal professionals. Effective special needs education boils down to three basic tenets: Accurate assessment and evaluation through proper testing; building appropriate, effective IEPs; and following through.

The conference will address these within the complex legal structure surrounding fair and appropriate educational opportunities for children, along with providing effective implementation and strategies for teamwork. Breakdowns in teamwork can lead to confrontation between parents and educators, and potential legal challenges. “It’s a relationship, it’s a dance. You can’t do it alone,” Sidell said. “If both sides aren’t working together, the child is going to suffer.”

The conference runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and costs $50 per person for family members and students, $75 per couple and $70 for professionals. Fees include lunch and accompanying books and materials.

Continuing education credits are available at additional cost to participants, and a limited number of family scholarships and tuition reductions are available by calling Jill Ide at 328-1582. People interested in attending are strongly urged to call the previous number and register as quickly as possible. Sidell said registration is going well, with people coming from as far away as Ohio.

Sidell said the conference was made possible through NAC’s relationship with Eastern. The university provides space and special equipment for Domino Project Preschool, a lab school at Martin Hall that specializes in developing and implementing education methods for autistic children.

Sponsoring the conference with NAC and Eastern are the Arc of Spokane, Region One Division for Developmental Disabilities, Autism Society of Washington and Inland Center for Autism and Related Disorders.

“Northwest Autism Center is hosting, but it’s not all about autism,” Sidell said. “It’s for special needs education.”

John McCallum can be reached at

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