Why Won’t They Stand on their Desks?

So many of us are grieving the loss of Robin Williams this week.  As an actor, he made us care about his characters by becoming them; and in so doing, he made us care about him.  As a comedian, he was an unstoppable energy that was equal parts intelligence and irreverence.

I know you’re wondering what this has to do with special education advocacy, but give me a few minutes. I’m getting there.

When I was fresh out of high school, Dead Poets Society came out.  I thought it was brilliant, and that Robin Williams’ portrayal of Mr. Keating was stunning.  Later, when the movie came out on tape (yes, tape. To watch on our VCR. Which was only slightly larger than our answering machine), we watched it incessantly at my house.  The movie spoke to so much of what I was raised to believe in:  questioning authority; the need for individuality; having courage to stand up for what’s right in the face of powerful forces which make doing so especially difficult.

In the iconic ending of the film, after being unfairly fired from his job as a teacher, Mr. Keating comes in to collect his things from his classroom.  The students, who have been pressured by the school administration and their parents to acquiesce to the plan to scapegoat Mr. Keating, sit uncomfortably by while their beloved teacher quietly packs up.  All the while, their class is being taught by one of the very administrators who orchestrated his removal.

As the pressure builds, it becomes too much for those in the class with integrity.  One by one, the students decide to show their loyalty to Mr. Keating by standing up on their desks, saying “Captain, My Captain” (a loving tribute Mr. Keating created to Walt Whitman) while the administrator shouts at them to sit down.  Robin Williams’ face as he watches this display is impossible to describe.  It encapsulates the humanity that he was able to portray unlike any other actor.  Somehow, when allowed few words, he was able to say it all with his sheer presence, energy, and reaction to others.

So what the Hell does any of this have to do with special education advocacy?

When we would watch our VCR tape of the movie in my house, my dad would say to me “Jenny, pay attention to this.  Notice that not all of the boys stand up on their desks.  That is very true to life.  There will always be people who lack the courage to stand up to authority.”  It stuck with me, and it stays with me to this day.

Almost every week I attend IEP meetings where good, honest, decent people who chose to become educators sit uncomfortably by as their administrators deny students services which those educators, in their heart of hearts, believe are necessary.  I can see it on their faces.  They want to shout out “YES, I AGREE,” but fear for their jobs.  Every once in a while, one of them will be unable to stand the pressure, and will openly side with the family; but those examples are few and far between.

I wish they knew that if they had the courage to stand up on their desks, they would be protected.  They have rights, including the right to not be fired or retaliated against for being honest about what a student requires under the IDEA.   I wish they knew that teachers staying silent about what kids with disabilities need is probably the primary obstacle to those students getting that help.  Administrators, faced with teachers who are willing to be honest “on the record,” often have no other choice than to do the right thing.

I wish those good teachers could see what those teenagers in Dead Poets Society saw:  that standing up for what is right, even shouting it from the top of your desk, is what makes them worthy of the profession to which they have been called.

From Cruelty To Understanding: Trends In Special Education From Then To Now
August 7, 2014

Here at YourSpecialEducationRights.com,  we are all about simplifying your special education rights.  That’s why we love this infographic on the history of special education brought to us by the folks at special-education-degree.net


Forrest Gump and The History of the IDEA
July 24, 2014
Photo property of Paramount Pictures

When we talk to parents about the history of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), we often refer the to movie Forrest Gump.  Forrest, portrayed by Tom Hanks, is a child in the 1950’s with a low IQ and leg braces.  In the movie, Forrest is prohibited from attending his public school.  His mother, portrayed by Sally Field, meets with the principal who agrees to enroll Forrest in exchange for sexual favors with her. While this movie is fiction, it accurately depicts a time in history when students with disabilities were legally turned away from the schoolhouse doors.

Riding the wave of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, parents of children with disabilities were fighting to get their children equal access to education.  Unbelievably, as recently as 1970, public schools in the United States only educated one in five children with disabilities; literally millions of children were turned away from school.  In 1975, Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), which was designed to support states and localities in protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving the results for infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and their families.  States who “opted in” to the funding attached to the federal law agree to follow the mandates contained in it; all States have chosen to accept the federal funding and are therefore bound by its procedural and substantive requirements.  This landmark law was amended by President Bill Clinton in 1997 and became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Circumstances for children with disabilities before the enactment of Public Law 94-142 were grim. Too many individuals lived in state institutions for persons with mental illness and intellectual disabilities.  For example, In 1967, state institutions were homes for nearly 200,000 persons with significant disabilities. Many of these restrictive settings provided minimal food, clothing, and shelter. Too often, persons with disabilities were merely accommodated rather than assessed, educated, and rehabilitated.

In the 39 years since the passage of Public Law 94-142, significant progress has been made toward meeting major national goals for developing and implementing effective programs and services for early intervention, special education, and related services.

To learn more about the history of the IDEA:


Photo property of Paramount Pictures

People First Language
September 30, 2013

Talking about people with differences can become a touchy subject.  Everyone seems to have an opinion and sometimes we end up offending people, even if we try not to offend.

For me, disability impacts me personally, so I recognize that I can be sensitive about it.   In my case, I have a son who has autism.  It gets under my skin when I hear people say “he’s autistic,” or “he suffers from autism,” as examples.  When I refer to my son, I say “he has autism” because, for me, his autism is not the only thing that I believe defines him.  You will never hear me say he “suffers” from autism.  I just can’t define my son as “suffering.”  If anything, he “flourishes.”

Here’s a simple thing to consider.   Put the person first, this is called person-first language.   It suggests people to say things like “Susie has Downs syndrome,” rather than “she suffers from Down syndrome,” or “she’s Downs.”

Imagine if we did this for people who might not have a disability, but have definable qualities.  For example, bitchy Joanne, mean Robert, cheater Peter.  I’m obviously try to make a point here.  Why offend a person who has a disability or someone who loves them, when it’s just so easy to put the person first.

You may still end up offending someone who believes their disability or difference does define them, but you might be less likely to do so.

Examples of People First Language

Say This Not This
people with disabilities the handicapped, the disabled
people without disabilities normal, healthy, whole or typical people
person who has a congenital disability person with a birth defect
person who has (or has been diagnosed with)… person afflicted with, suffers from, a victim of…
person who has Down syndrome Downs person, mongoloid, mongol
person who has (or has been diagnosed with) autism the autistic
person with quadriplegia, person with paraplegia, person diagnosed with a physical disability a quadriplegic, a paraplegic
person with a physical disability a cripple
person of short stature, little person a dwarf, a midget
person who is unable to speak, person who uses a communication device dumb, mute
people who are blind, person who is visually
the blind
person with a learning disability learning disabled
person diagnosed with a mental health condition crazy, insane, psycho, mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, demented
person diagnosed with a cognitive disability or with an intellectual and developmental disability mentally retarded, retarded, slow, idiot, moron
student who receives special education services special ed student, special education student
person who uses a wheelchair or a mobility chair confined to a wheelchair; wheelchair bound
accessible parking, bathrooms, etc. handicapped parking, bathrooms, etc.

mens health

Special Education Is a Civil Right
October 24, 2012

Source: Your Special Education Lawyer

These days, I find myself constantly reminding people of the civil rights origins of federal special education law. The first federal law to attempt to address comprehensively the educational rights of students with disabilities followed two landmark 1970′s civil rights cases from Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Those cases, relying upon Brown v. Board of Education, declared that the Constitution required equal access to education for all students, including students with disabilities.

Looking at the legislative history of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), there is no question that members of Congress knew they were enacting a law protecting important civil rights of students with disabilities. The procedures in the law exist for a reason. Complying with the procedural requirements as a condition of receiving federal funds is necessary to protect the rights of students with disabilities. Lately, I hear people who advocate watering down, or even eliminating, those procedural protections.

I refuse to accept the proposition that our children’s civil rights are not worth the effort required to comply with IDEA.

Why are some people determined to ignore the civil rights origins of IDEA? Because if you just look at IDEA as legislation that requires school district personnel to fill out paperwork to get money, it is easier to argue that the law is merely an annoying administrative obstacle. When you acknowledge the civil rights origins of the law, and view children with disabilities as individuals worthy of protection of their rights, it is much more difficult to justify removal of the safeguards created by IDEA.

The early cases requiring access to education for students with disabilities exist because of the determination and dedication of parents who refused to give in to societal prejudice and preconceptions. That is why federal courts repeatedly acknowledge the central role of parental participation in the process of appropriately educating students with disabilities. Make no mistake – taking procedural protections away from parents and students with disabilities will not “streamline” the educational process. It will, instead, erode the civil rights of children with disabilities.

As a society, do we want to start down that path?

We Don’t Do That in This District

There are lot’s of things I hear at IEP team meetings that cause me to bristle and take a deep breath.  One of them is when I hear “We don’t do that in this district.”

It was recently said at a meeting in which we were discussing the possibility of a student requiring a residential program as part of an appropriate placement.  The director said, “we’ve never paid for the residential portion of an educational program,  we don’t do that here.”

As I usually do,  I took a few deep breaths and contemplated my response to make sure I said something appropriate.

I explained that I was a uncomfortable with his response and I would be more than happy to ignore it.  But, if he really meant it and wanted it on the record, than I would request for the district’s position to be on the record.  Loud and clear!

I explained that I was uncomfortable with it because he was predetermining what the IEP team was going to decide about the student’s program.  Additionally, it sounded like it was their policy not to do such things, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for the district to have a policy about what they do and don’t pay for as a part of a student’s IEP.

He rethought his definitive statement about not paying for residential portions of educational placements and said he wanted to wait to see what the evaluators had to say about what the student needed.
I confirmed that I thought that was a great idea!
Don’t Put All Your Stock in Hallway Conversations


In my experience talking with parents who have special education concerns, it is disturbing for me to learn about misinformation often given to them in hallway conversations with teachers or other school staff.

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not about teachers or other school staff and placing blame on them.  Most teachers are worth their weight in gold.  But, ultimately most teachers are not experts on the IDEA (Individual with Disabilities Education Act) and your rights under this federal law.

Here’s an example.  I had a parent insist that he couldn’t refer his child to special education because his child’s teacher said that only teachers could make the referral.   After I took a couple of deep breaths, I explained that the teacher’s explanation was not entirely true.  Teachers can make referrals to special education, and so can you!  Please know that you, as a parent or guardian can refer your child to special education.  The referral can trigger initial evaluations in all suspected areas of disability by your school team or other professionals.

In another example, a parent explained to me that the school speech and language pathologist reported to him that his son was going to be exited from special education at the next IEP team meeting because he was doing so well.  O.K., I would consider that predetermining an outcome at it’s best.  So hold on right there, this type of decision can only be made in an IEP team meeting where many things are taken into consideration when exiting a child from special education.

So whether your child is not currently in special education or already receiving special education services, you would be well-served to request an IEP (Individualized Education Program) team meeting to discuss all of your questions and concerns.

So while it’s tempting to put all your stock in what you’ve discussed casually in the hallway, don’t.

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