Special Education Advocacy: Introducing the Advocacy Support Program

I wish I’d known about special education advocates back in 2008. I have a lot of regrets about what could have been done, what should have been done, and what I wish I’d done back then. I spent much of those initial months flailing, caught between medical appointments, therapy sessions, and meetings at school. I didn’t know what I was doing, at all.

My biggest mistake, and the mistake that many parents make at the start of the special education process, was in assuming that the school-based team at my son’s elementary school and I had the same goals with regard to my son. I wanted to figure out what was going on with my son, and to help him be successful in school. I was also eager – and sometimes desperate – to believe the school when they told me that my son was fine. I wanted to them to be right so many times when they said that he didn’t need special education support, and that what he needed were the tiniest of tweaks in the curriculum and environment.

I was reminded of those times during Special Education Legal Fund’s March webinar on special education advocacy. I spent most of the first six months of our time in the public school system begging the assistant principal to refer my son for special education. I didn’t know, and no one at the school bothered to tell me, that I could do the referral myself. No one bothered to mention the fact that all I needed to do was write an email to the director of special education saying:

I am the parent of [INSERT NAME], who is currently enrolled in [INSERT SCHOOL NAME] in grade [INSERT GRADE]. My child has not been doing well in school and I am concerned about his/her educational progress.

I am writing to make a referral for assessment for special education services for [INSERT CHILD’S NAME]. He/she may be eligible for special education services. I would like psychological, psychoeducational, speech and language pathology, occupational therapy, physical therapy evaluations of [INSERT NAME].

Sample letter for Referral for Special Education Services

Had I had Diane Willcutts, Anne Munkenbeck, Julie Swanson, or Virginia Blum on my team at that time, my outcome might have been much different. Or at least less fraught and potentially less confrontational. The communication process between families and school districts is a crucial area in which special education advocates provide much needed knowledge, advice, support, and coaching. An advocate’s help in understanding what is going on with the process can be invaluable in potentially defusing the school-parent relationship that may sometimes be prone to escalation.

How Do I Find the Right Special Education Advocate?

Finding an advocate and one that meets your family’s needs can be an important first step in the special education journey. All of the advocates on our March panel are experienced champions in special education advocacy on behalf of families, parents, and children. All of the advocates on our panel this evening have undergone extensive professional training in order to embark on the career of special education advocacy, and all of the advocates on our panel come from a place where their experience in the system with their own children has inspired their careers and informed their practice.

When S.E.L.F. clients reach out to me for guidance in selecting an attorney, I often point them towards COPAA – the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates – as a starting point. COPAA is a nonprofit, nationwide organization of attorneys, advocates, parents, and other related professionals dedicated to “protecting the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities and their families.” In addition to their legal work on behalf of students with disabilities, COPAA provides resources for families to understand their rights and to professionals like attorneys and advocates to further their professional knowledge and credentials.

But finding an advocate can be tricky because of the lack of professional licensing standards for the field. Advocates and the field of special education advocacy differ from special education attorneys and the practice of special education law. While attorneys attend law school and pass the bar examination to practice law, no such authority exists to provide professional credentials to a special education advocate. Because of the lack of professional credentials, the process of searching for and finding a special education process can be confusing. In addition to their well regarded advocate training curriculum SEAT (Special Education Advocate Training), COPAA also has published a helpful article highlighting important guidelines for choosing an advocate.

What does a Special Education Advocate do?

Many S.E.L.F. families use the terms “attorney” and “advocate” interchangeably. What they really mean is someone who is on their side. While the question of what a special education advocate does (and the corollary question, how is a special education advocate different than a special education attorney) is broad enough to be covered in a entire webinar of its own (follow @spedlegalfund on Facebook or Instagram for info about next year’s webinar series), I have come to think of special education advocates as occupying a particularly important role in the parent advocacy process. Think about it this way – a special education attorney’s time in your child’s education journey is by design (and expense) meant to be limited. Generally speaking, a parent would contact a special education attorney when they have reached an obstacle or impasse in their child’s educational process that cannot be overcome without the help of a lawyer. The attorney is generally meant to help the family get from Point A to Point B. Who among of us, at any rate, can afford to have a special education attorney on retainer indefinitely?

A special education advocate can serve a different purpose for a family. Advocates are advocates for their families and their students, but the best advocates help set a parent or guardian on the pathway to fully independent advocacy. The best advocates teach parents how to read an IEP, how to write goals and objectives that are SMART, how to advocate in a collaborative and constructive manner, how to push when needed, and how to pull back when necessary. This is as much an education process as it is an advocacy process. As a parent of a child with special education needs, your journey advocating for your student may last for many years – in some cases until your child is 22 or beyond. The best advocates recognize that parents bear the ultimate responsibility for their child’s education and advocacy process, and everything they do is designed to set the parent or guardian on that path.

Much like attorneys, special education advocates have different specialities or interests. For example, Julie Swanson, who participated in our panel, has an adult son with autism and her experience as his mother and as an advocate have deeply informed her practice as well as the formation of her passion project, Life Skills Lady. Julie is passionate about transition to adulthood and the process through which individuals through their IEPs acquire necessary skills for independent living. Anne Munkenbeck is particularly passionate about parent training and is currently pursuing a masters degree in special education with a concentration in assistive technology, which will certain augment her already extensive knowledge and experience in the field. Diane Willcutts has over twenty years of experience advocating for children with special education needs and her background in research and program development plus her experience teaching statistics deeply informs her practice particularly with regard to interpreting research, assessments, and testing. Diane also is particularly passionate about working with students with dyslexia. Virginia Blum‘s experience as a mother of a child with autism provides the foundation for her advocacy practice, and she is deeply committed to serving members of the community whose voices heretofore have been unheard. Virginia is also passionate about educating parents to read their document and teaching them how to advocate for themselves. Finally, our moderator Lara Damashek‘s experience as a public school teacher and special education attorney help to inform both her special education advocacy practice as well as her representation of parents as a CSE (Committee on Special Education) representative at an independent special education school in Westchester, New York. Lara is passionate about helping parents who feel overwhelmed and unsure about the process, and helping them feel empowered about the special education advocacy process.

Special Education Advocacy is a Process: The Advocacy Support Program (Pilot)

Thanks to the support of the Greenwich International Film Festival and the Stapleton Family Foundation, Special Education Legal Fund is currently piloting the Advocacy Support Program for residents of Fairfield County, Connecticut with a student that has an IEP or 504 plan and meets the required income levels. The Advocacy Support Program provides up to $1000 in grant support for families in need to access the support of a special education advocate designated by the family from the Advocacy Support Program List (“The List”). The advocates included on the Advocacy Support Program List were nominated for inclusion on the list by a special education attorney currently practicing in Connecticut. Advocates who are not included on The List are not eligible to receive grant funding on behalf of an ASP grant recipient.

The Advocacy Support Program List

Virginia Blum


Jill Chuckas


Janine Kelly


Laurie Markus


Anne Munkenbeck

[email protected]

Allie Nicolari-Grafman


Judy Reilly


Julie Swanson


Stacey Tíe


Marla Wayne


Jennifer Weitz


Diane Willcutts



Applying for an Advocacy Support Program Grant

Families who wish to initiate an application for the Advocacy Support Program should email Special Education Legal Fund at [email protected] to initiate a prescreening to determine basic qualification for the program. The application process involves completion of the application form, providing required documentation, and a brief phone interview. Applications for the pilot Advocacy Support Program will be accepted and reviewed on a monthly basis in April, May, and June of 2021, with application deadlines at the end of each month (April 30th, May 31st, and June 30th). As with all grants offered through Special Education Legal Fund, all grant funding is paid directly to the professional, and receipt of an application does not guarantee that the application will be approved or funded by Special Education Legal Fund.

Why Do I Need a Special Education Advocate?

Many families with children who have an Individualized Education Plan will be part of the special education system for many years. Families who transition from Birth to Three or Early Intervention Services to the special education preschools in their local school system could be part of the special education system until their child reaches the age of 22. For families at the beginning of their special education journey, an advocate can serve as a helpful and much needed guide through the intricacies of the identification process, the evaluation, the initial placement, and the first Individualized Education Plan. At other points in the journey, parents may also find themselves in need of advice and support – particularly during inflection points like the transition to elementary school, middle school, high school, and beyond.

Special Education Legal Fund believes that application of knowledge and support at various stages in a family’s special education journey can have a significant impact both on a student’s eventual outcomes as well as the family’s advocacy experience. For a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the Advocacy Support Program, please see the link below. For more information about Special Education Legal Fund, please visit our website and follow @spedlegalfund on Facebook and Instagram, and @SpecialFund on Twitter.