RAdvocacy and the New Vocabulary of Power ~ Leeanne Seaver, Board Member H&V

Whether you’re more comfortable bringing cookies to the IEP meeting, or bringing six law texts and an expert witness, it’s important to remember that all effective advocacy strategies require competency in the four R’s.

No, we don’t mean three R’s, (reading, writing & arithmetic), we mean the four R’s of advocacy:

  • Reason
  • Rationale
  • Resolution
  • Remedy

When you’re thorough and effective at the four R’s, at Hands & Voices we say you’re a “radical advocate” (or “RAdvocate”)-in a very positive sense. We developed this new twist on an old term to avoid the instant assumptions and misconceptions some people have about advocacy and advocates. We more commonly use the user-friendliness of “IEP Facilitator” as another option when emphasizing the effective, meaningful involvement of parents in the educational planning for their child. If you’re wondering what your job title and responsibilities are as an “equal member” of the IEP team, either radvocate or IEP facilitator would be accurate. Parents are the ones responsible for “quality control and quality assurance” so here’s some basic training on that topic.

Many school districts get tense and defensive when they hear “oh, that parent is a strong advocate” or “Tim’s mom is bringing an advocate to the IEP.” For many school districts, the presence of parent advocates means there’s been a breakdown in direct communication between professional and parent members of the IEP team. It lends to the perception that litigation is imminent, and that feeling can have a real chilling effect on everybody. It’d be more helpful for all parties to think of someone in this role as a team player who’s going to help facilitate the successful development and implementation of an IEP. This person would have to be bringing a lot to the table in terms of skills and resources. They’d have to break away from the old, negative stereotypes. They’d have to be very knowledgeable about their role. It’s time for a new, “out of the box” approach that we call “RAdvocacy.”

What’s a ‘Radvocate’ Do?

Radical advocates, or ‘radvocates’, can be parents or professionals who are advocating effectively for students with the Four R’s Method. Radvocates are great at articulating the reasons for the requests they make of schools. They have a solid, legally-supportable, fact-based rationale to support their position. Radvocates don’t stop there-they bring concrete solutions that are practical, appropriate, collaborative, and creative. Finally, radvocates know how to use the legal remedies proscribed by IDEA if that step becomes necessary. Radvocates always follow the number one rule of advocacy: Prepare for litigation so you won’t have to litigate. (Thanks to Pete Wright for that mantra!) We’ll say more on radvocacy strategy, but first let’s review the Radvocacy Four R’s approach..

1. Reason

What are the reasons for any of the goals or objectives on your child’s or student’s IEP? The reasons should always be tied to delivering a free and appropriate education (FAPE) that will give him or her reasonable benefit from that education. The standards for academic achievement established by the state in which you reside, based on the general curriculum at each grade level, should be reflected in those goals and objectives so your child/student can be expected to be taught and to learn at the level of his/her “typical” peers. If the IEP is accomplishing FAPE with grade level achievement, according the same measures applied to typical peers, then it’s a good IEP.

But what if your child is not performing at grade level? What if s/he isn’t accessing all the information in the educational environment? What if you, as the parent, have a good reason to believe there are techniques and strategies that would improve the situation?

As an equal member of the IEP team, parents are encouraged and indeed expected to bring their suggestions to the IEP meeting, (sometimes called a ‘staffing’). Schools are obliged to consider the suggestions or concerns of parents, and to make a good faith effort at incorporating parent goals deemed appropriate. When schools respond positively to parent input, and follow-through efficiently, and the kid’s making progress, it’s smooth sailing. But if there’s resistance, or “hurdle talk” for some reason, (for more on “Hurdle Talk”, see the Pop-Up IEP on our website, www.handsandvoices.org), then you had better be prepared to support your proposal with solid reasoning.

  • What is the reason for your request? Be prepared to demonstrate this reasoning.
  • What exactly are you proposing? Can you complete this sentence, “We’re/I’m requesting that you (do/consider/implement/trial/insert your specific proposal) because..
  • Make your request verbally and in writing. Send it two weeks ahead of the IEP meeting, and advise the team that you’ll want time on the agenda reserved for discussion of this proposal. Keep a copy of your written request in a file where you document all interactions regarding the IEP.
  • Sometimes what you’re asking for is based on a gut feeling. (Ex: “I think Amy can make it in the Advanced Literature class if we can just figure out the right formula for support.) Don’t disregard your feelings or instincts. Just work on presenting your ideas reasonably, and knowing what you’re rationale is. The time to allow your emotions to play a part in the development of goals for your child is during the first step, Reason.

Logic vs Emotion

The reason you’re asking for a particular service, support or accommodation may be logical or it may be emotional. While a logical reason may be easier to support, emotional reasons should not be summarily dismissed. Upon close examination, emotional reasons usually contain an element of logic. A good radvocate (parent or professional) dissects an emotional argument to find a reasonable motivation. The next two fictitious examples present classic “emotional” themes.

A “We just don’t like that teacher” example: The Luttrell family was vehemently against placing their sixth grade son, Jason, who was deaf, in Mrs. Claney’s English class. It was the long-term practice of the school to place all deaf students with Mrs. Claney in sixth grade because she had worked in special education for five years very early in her 30 year career and still remembered some sign language. The IEP team teachers and school principal believed that the Luttrell’s resistance was based on hard feelings having to do with one of Jason’s older, hearing siblings who had done poorly in her class. They dismissed the Luttrell’s position as purely irrational. But Jason’s parents argued that based on their history with Mrs. Claney, they knew her teaching style included grouping all the deaf students together and teaching them a different, easier, “watered down” curriculum than the one the hearing kids got in her room. Plus, Mrs. Claney was a poor PSE signer, and Jason was fluent in ASL.

Neither Mrs. Claney nor the school administrator would admit to her sign improficiency. In fact, the principal told the Luttrells that he had himself observed Mrs. Claney himself and was impressed with how “fast her fingers were flying.” He gave her a very good review because speed like that represented quality and accuracy as far as he was concerned. Nor did the school acknowledge the segregated teaching within Mrs. Claney’s room. Jason’s parents had to gather evidence from other families to prove their point. Then the Luttrell’s requested that the Mrs. Claney’s sign skills be independently evaluated by a qualified interpreter. Both requests were followed through on and the Luttrell’s were able to move Jason to a different class with an ASL interpreter for support. Further, they insisted that teacher-choice would be an option they could always exercise on Jason’s IEP, and the school honored that request.

A “That family is in complete denial” example: When Helen Craig, a parent-infant teacher with a degree in deaf education, arrived at the Davis home to meet Sue, Roger and their baby Alexa, two months old and just diagnosed as profoundly deaf, she was shocked to hear the parents say they had already chosen a cochlear implant for their daughter. They stated that their goals were to proceed immediately with auditory-verbal therapy and get the implant at the earliest possible opportunity. When Helen tried to explore the reason for this choice, both parents eagerly responded that they wanted Alexa to talk like they did. Helen left that home visit very frustrated that she hadn’t been able to convince the parents to even consider other options for Alexa. She felt certain that the Davis’s were denying the reality of their daughter’s deafness and just wanted to “fix the problem” as quickly as insurance would allow. Helen worried that Alexa might never be truly accepted and loved by Sue and Roger. These were the kind of parents that really disgusted her.

Meanwhile, Roger and Sue were feeling very letdown by Helen’s reaction to their decision about the cochlear implant. Her disappointment in them had been transparent. Now the couple was having some doubts about staying with this early intervention program. They sensed that it was extremely biased against cochlear implants. Should they have disclosed to Mrs. Craig that Sue had a degenerative form of arthritis and was losing the use of her hands, which would eventually make her unable to communicate at all with Alexa through sign language? Communicating fully with their daughter was their greatest hope and dream. Wasn’t Mrs. Craig supposed to support their choice without judgment?

The Luttrell family reached a consensual resolution to their problem with effective advocacy. Certainly, they could have filed for an impartial due process hearing of their issues, but they circumvented that step through documentation and a reasonable resolution proposal that the school accepted. But the Davis family hadn’t gotten any farther than their first home visit before problems arose. The next interaction could make or break the parent/professional partnership. Both the parents and their early interventionist need to apply “Reason” to the discussion so they mutually understand the “Rationale” supporting it.

2. Rationale

Is what you’re asking for reasonable or unreasonable? Can it be rationally supported by research-based facts, objective evaluation and assessment, verifiable success demonstrated in other students and school districts (if applicable), or even in other states, and it is defensable by special education law and/or case law precedents?

If you yourself don’t know the rationale behind the reason for your request on behalf of your child or student, then you are dealing from a weak position indeed. A good rationale can be developed if you find the answers to these questions:

  • Why do you think your idea will improve your child’s performance?
  • What evidence do you have that it can work?
  • How have your child’s assessments & evaluations been taken into consideration?
  • How should the goals for this proposal be written so they are measurable (don’t ever rely on teacher observation alone)?
  • Do you have a highly credible expert willing to write a letter that supports your position?
  • Can the opposing view be discredited?
  • Are you sure you have unique answers for the “reason” and the “rationale”?

Identify exactly where and how your idea meshes with the spirit and letter of IDEA.

Level the playing field-know how to support your position articulately, reasonably, rationally,and defensably.

An example of a good rationale: Steve Drillock saw his bright, enthusiastic son’s spirits begin to flag soon after he began third grade. Although Stevie was hard of hearing, he functioned very well with hearing aids, and always functioned at grade level. But now Stevie seemed confused and withdrawn much of the time. Behavior issues were beginning to surface. The academic stakes were higher, and his new teacher spent more time delivering instruction in a lecture format, as opposed to the activity centers and play-style exercises Stevie was used to. The open school lay-out that had seemed so innovative and contemporary when Stevie was in kindergarten, now just seemed incredibly noisy and chaotic. Steve felt it was clear that acoustical adaptations and an FM system should be put in place, and asked about the likelihood of that happening. The school’s response was not positive. Their position was that since Stevie wasn’t failing, they weren’t obligated to change their support services already in place, which they described as “appropriate.”

Steve didn’t see it that way, so he went to work. He did some research with a group called “Parents’ Voices” and on a website called “Listen Up.” He learned about the ANSI standards for acceptable acoustic levels in school classrooms, and had Stevie’s classroom tested. Then he re-submitted his request to the district in writing with a clearly stated proposal for acoustical treatments to the classroom, as well as an FM system linking Stevie’s hearing aids directly to his teacher’s voice. His reasoning was that the physical environment coupled with the new teaching style and higher academic expectations was creating a crisis for Stevie, who couldn’t hear well enough to adapt without additional support. Steve supported his position with a well-developed rationale, citing a volume of studies showing the diminishing sound receptivity in noisy environments, and the required “comprehension distance” for a listener who was hard of hearing. He related his conclusions directly to sections in IDEA that require the IEP team to give special consideration to the communication needs and assistive technology requirements for deaf or hard of hearing children. Steve got a university professor on communication disorders to write a letter in support of his position, with specific references to Stevie’s audiogram and hearing potential. He connected to Parent Advocacy chat rooms on-line and learned how other parents had accomplished similar goals, and used those precedents as examples. Finally, he pointed out that the school district could be liable for compensatory damages if his child began to fail due to their inattention to the problems that he’d credibly described in his proposal.

3. Resolution

“It is not enough for parents to object to the school district’s proposed services. Rather, to have effective input into their child’s educational program, parents must be prepared to propose alternatives that are geared to meet realistic goals they have established.” IDEA Advocacy for Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, Bonnie Poitras Tucker, J.D., Singular Publishing Group, 1997, page 23.

Another way of thinking about the third phase, “Resolution”, is to just plan on doing all the thinking for the school about your proposal. Take a school perspective and anticipate problems and come up with solutions to them before your idea is ever presented. This will strengthen your position immensely. It will make it easier to agree to, and harder for schools to dismiss or avoid action. This process alone can uncover the “vetoes” that could be deal-breaking for your proposal, and give you time to address them before a school administrator files your letter in the wastebasket. You’ll be prepared for Resolution once you’ve resolved the answers to the school’s questions about “How could we even do that for Tim in light of (insert Hurdle Talk here)”? If you done well positing your argument, provided reason and rationale, the remaining unknowns have all to do with implementation of your idea.

Implementation is the elephant in the room. Be prepared to lead the discussion on implementation of your plan if it isn’t taking shape during the IEP. Having resolutions to every problem or “hurdle” that will come up in the consideration of your proposal’s implementation means you have got to understand the “culture” and politics of your school well enough to address those concerns as well. Develop a strong relationship with someone on your IEP team who will be your ally, providing advice and counsel on how things get done in your district. Know that every “hurdle” may not yet be identified by the school, but their anticipation of potential problems is usually the reason a teacher or administrator would “like to get back to you on that.” Again, if you followed the process of Reason thoroughly, you can avoid that form of delay by sending your proposal ahead and requesting that someone with decision-making authority be present and ready to take action at the IEP meeting.

Be sure you can answer these questions, or get answers to these questions:

  • Who will be the responsible party for implementing your idea?
  • Be specific: name names. Get a commitment.
  • Establish a timetable and put a mechanism in place for knowing the proposal is getting done.
  • If there is a non-negotiable reason why the school can’t do it the way you’ve proposed, then what alternatives can you point to in compromise?

Finally, after you’ve arrived at a thoroughly considered plan for Resolution that will address every problem the school may come up with, walk into that IEP meeting with an attitude of collaboration, creativity, open-mindedness, and a willingness to “switch horses in mid-stream.” Your passion for your idea may inspire your other IEP team members to greatness. Allow for greatness from everyone.

4. Remedy

The traditional definition for remedy, in the context of special education, might read:

“The activity engaged between the family of a child with special needs and the school district where the child is educated, for the purposes of resolving disagreements legally, as proscribed by IDEA.

However, the Radvocacy dictionary (if there was one) would put it this way:

“The process of avoiding litigation through effective communication and advocacy using the Radvocacy Four R¹s Method and the non-consensual IEP closure strategies.”

The ultimate goal of the Four R’s Method is that by doing the first three steps right, you won’t have to do the fourth at all – pursuing a legal ‘Remedy’. Obviously, that’s just another way of reinforcing the mantra, “prepare for litigation so you won’t have to litigate.” While that may sound like a call to arms, the intention is truly to drill the message of diligence and quality control into parents. Parents must be attentive to and engaged in the entire IEP process from eligibility to IEP development, implementation, transition, and evaluation.

Parents must take on the responsibilities that their role dictates, and truly become the “IEP Facilitators” and Quality Control Managers of their child’s education. As such, they need to function with a kind of Remedy “filter” through which every interaction passes. If they get a call from school the third time in a month about Scotty being sent to the principal’s office, then that’s the third “Note to File” they’ve written about the calls, with a record of the day and time of each. That note will include information on what the caller said, and how the dialogue went. The parent will want to add some thoughts on how the school has been following or not following the positive behavior reinforcement plan in Scotty’s IEP. If they make a follow-up phone call to the teacher about their concerns, they put a “Note to File” in the advocacy file detailing that discussion. If they write the letter of concern to Scotty’s principal about the issue, they ask for a response within a certain time frame, and they keep a copy of this letter in their advocacy file. Whether the principal does or doesn’t respond by that time is noted as well.

Essentially, you are documenting your case so that there are no gaps of information that will weaken your position to an attorney or hearing officer if you ever have to go to court. Good documentation is a form of good communication. It helps all parties even if there’s never a disagreement, because the process serves to remind everyone of their responsibilities, promises, and obligations. The process is itself the Remedy.

You’ve found the REMEDY if you’ve:

  • Committed yourself to manage the quality of your child’s education.
  • Educated yourself on special education law, (IDEA, NCLB, ADA)
  • Educated yourself on your child’s special needs.
  • Followed the Four R’s Method of Radvocacy.
  • Prepared for litigation so you won’t have to litigate. (Peter Wright, Esq.)
  • Connected with a deaf or hard of hearing adult role model or mentor for opinions and advice.
  • Have a plan for full communication access during all parts of your child’s school day (even extra-curricular school events) clearly written into her IEP.
  • Have direct communication with your child’s general education teacher, as well as every other professional delivering the services on his IEP.
  • Networked with other parents, especially in your own district, of deaf and hard of hearing students, for information sharing, and to use the power of numbers if needed.
  • Made an ally of a professional on your child’s IEP team.

And so forth. Actually, the number of RAdvocacy Remedies is almost limitless. The strategies you employ will vary depending on the dynamics in which you’re working, but it will always be an effort driven by our fierce commitment to our children, and the absolute necessity to create a world in which they thrive.

*Radvocacy & the New Vocabulary of Power, Copyright 2002 Leeanne Seaver, M.A., Executive Director, Hands & Voices National. Published by the National Center on Low Incidence Disabilities; Used by Permission.