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The Negotiating Season

Robert Rummel-Hudson

It's upon us, that time of the year that special needs families anticipate and dread and prepare for and need most of all. It's the season of the IEP.

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a document mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. At least once a year, the members of a disabled student's team get together and hammer out a plan that spells out in painstaking detail exactly what special education services that student will receive and, if appropriate, what the process of inclusion for that student in mainstream classes will look like.

The IEP determines issues such as grade classification, therapy placement, academic goals, a behavior plan if appropriate, a detailed strategy for communication, or just about whatever it is that the school will be expected to do in order to provide an appropriate level of education for that student. These goals and plans are designed specifically to the one student - individualized, as it were - with his or her needs in mind.

The IEP can be stressful because it depends on a perfectly balanced, three-legged structure, with educators, therapists and parents (or perhaps more accurately family, since Schuyler now attends her own IEP meetings and will begin advocating on her own behalf). That balance can be hard to strike; parents in particular tend to show up feeling underinformed and powerless. 

They're not. Or rather, they don't have to be. Parents need to understand that their intimate relationship with their kid empowers them with a level of investment that can't be ignored and shouldn't be minimized. It's imperative that parents go in knowing what they need to know, and with a clear and sober understanding of their child's disability and what that might mean realistically. But in my opinion, parents also need to temper that with a philosophical open door. They need to overbelieve. They need to hold onto possibilities, because those possibilities have a funny way of turning into realities.

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As parents, we advocate for our kids receiving as much in the way of services as we can get, and we do so knowing that our success could very well mean fewer resources for other students. That sounds harsh, but we shouldn't worry too much about that, because the school's position is the opposite. Giving each student as little as they can in the way of individual resources means more for everyone. It's an awkward dance that shouldn't be about money and resources but absolutely is.

Therapists stand in an unenviable space between parents who might not understand exactly what is being proposed and educators who are resistant to new therapies and techniques. And yet, I feel like more times than not, it's the therapists and the speech language pathologists who hold the keys. They are the ones who most often seem ready to embrace new things, without allowing the fear of failure to stifle their willingness to try. They are so often the Cassandras of the IEP. Gifted with the ability to see the possibilities, but doomed to be ignored or disbelieved.

In just over a week, we will all file into a room, and we will negotiate the future. There are already obstacles falling into place, unilateral actions by the school district taken without team input that need to be addressed. And they will be addressed. This isn't out first rodeo. No matter how many times we go through this process, it feels like we have to step up from time to time and say "I hear what you're saying, but we have a different perspective. And that perspective is vital, and it's going to be heard."

If therapists are Cassandra, then I confess to sometimes feeling like Sisyphus. Which is fine. I have plenty of boulder-rolling days still in me.

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