By Mark S. Kamleiter, Esq.
Let's examine the role of an advocate from the perspective of what it takes to be an effective advocate. I believe most people would agree that in general, effectiveness must be measured by success in attaining our goals and objectives. For an educational advocate then, effectiveness is measured by our success in obtaining the optimal (dare I use the word) educational services for the disabled child.
It may be just as important to be aware of those things that are not a measure of advocacy effectiveness. It is not how much knowledge we have of the laws, procedures and educational best practices, although we must, certainly must have this knowledge. It is not how stubborn, confident or demanding we are. It is not our sharp wit, repartee or debating skills. It is not our ability to take charge. It is not how much we are loved or appreciated by the parents we serve. The bottom line is always whether or not we able to obtain the child’s needed educational services.
In preparing ourselves for advocacy and then self-monitoring our work, consider the following tips for good advocacy.
A. Be Prepared: You must acquire the requisite knowledge base to allow you to inform both the parents and school personnel. Never stop learning. Don’t become a guru, but become a learning sponge, continually absorbing the knowledge you need to attain your objectives. The point is not to impress others with your knowledge, but to have a ready source of information when needed.
B. Maintain a quiet confidence: You will often be stepping into a heated emotional environment. Both sides can appreciate an advocate who brings a quiet confident spirit to the proceedings. You are armed with your knowledge, the mandated procedural protections and the ultimate justice of your cause.
C. Be a Problem-Solver: By the time the advocate is called into a situation, it has already degenerated emotionally, with each side having solidified their positions. What this means to the advocate is that there may well be almost obvious solutions being completely ignored by the parties. If you blindly take up the parent’s cause, including their anger, you may well miss ways to resolve the issues. Maintain an attitude that where both sides are seeking the best interest of the child, there must be a reasonable solution to problems.
D. Don’t assume responsibility that is not yours: This is a great stress reducer. Very often stress is caused by accepting responsibility for things that you cannot control. You cannot force a school to offer a good educational plan. You cannot make school personnel respect parents and their rights. You can help parents know what their rights are and facilitate their implementing their rights. You can encourage and empower parents. You can maintain a healthy pressure on school personnel to act appropriately.
E. Maintain a grounded reality, with positive optimism: Let your experience provide you with a well grounded sense of reality in dealing with schools. You know what schools will agree to and what they will fight about. You know what is persuasive to school personnel and what they do not respect. You understand human nature and the numerous personal and administrative agendas people will bring to the table with them.
Your parents need this knowledge that cannot be gained from books. Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that the study of law is the prediction of what the courts will do in a certain set of circumstances. How true this is. My clients do not come to me so that I can explain the law to them, what they truly want to know is “what will the courts do.” The same is true with our parents. They want to know what they can expect in their conflicts with the schools.
That being said, temper your reality with optimism. We are doing this work because we really believe that we can make a positive difference in the education of children with disabilities. It is often hard, unfair, and discouraging but we still believe we can make it better than it was.
F. Maintain a firm, determined demeanor, but avoid rigidity and reaction to offense: While we insist upon respect for parent’s rights and we struggle for the educational services our children need, we need to pick our fights wisely. Sometimes we get so focused upon “they can’t do that!” and “they have to do this,” we lose sight of the reality of our situation. Don’t encourage parents to get in a fight over principle; carefully choose your battleground so that successful combat moves you closer to your objectives. Help your parents ignore slights and offenses and remain focused on their objectives.
G. Count the Costs: Put another way, don’t write a check that you can’t cover. An abstract right is of no value to a parent, unless he has the ability to access that right. While much can be gained for children with disabilities through negotiation, pressure, continued demands and determined stubbornness, there will be issues where the schools are just not going to yield without Due Process or legal action. When that happens, it is vital to remember that it does not matter how right the parent is, or how wrong the school is, if the parent does not have the resources (emotional, physical, financial) to enforce his/her rights. A good advocate will help a parent take the measure of their resources, the ultimate importance of the educational issue and the likelihood of a positive outcome in making a decision to litigate against the school system.