Sam Naser

Know your rights

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A learning disability is a neurological disorder that makes things like arithmetic, reading or organizing information a little bit harder. By some estimates, one in seven Americans has one. And while there’s no cure, they can be greatly improved with strategies that help manage them if they’re found early enough.

So, how do you tell if your child has one? For the non-trained professionals among us, the answer is rarely clear. The first red flag could be delayed speech, trouble reading, or an unusual difficulty concentrating on homework. It could be a teacher that notices something is amiss, or just your own anchoring suspicion. In any case, if you suspect it, your best bet is to have your child tested, and done so immediately.

Unfortunately, the cost of getting your child thoroughly evaluated by a trained professional can run upwards of $5,000. The good news is that expense is not yours to bear. You can thank the mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for that. It’s a piece of federal legislation that entitles every student with disabilities to a “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.” And under IDEA, that “free” clause encompasses the initial assessment of the student.

In other words, local school districts are obligated to evaluate whether your child has a learning disability on their dime, even if your child attends private school. The IDEA law makes a lot of other promises too, many of which budget-challenged schools will likely be reluctant to deliver on.

So, if the evaluation does confirm your child has a learning disability, you better know IDEA front and back. Because you’re in for a long haul, and you may have to fight tooth and nail to secure the services your child is legally entitled to under IDEA.  After all, the best way to advocate for your child is to know your rights.

Getting evaluated

Although IDEA requires schools to help identify children who may have learning disabilities and front the cost of their evaluation, never leave it up to the school to tell you whether or not your child should get tested. As a parent, you know your child the best and observe them the most often. As dedicated as most teachers are, they don’t have the time or resources to be as invested in your child’s future as you are.

So, if you notice that your child is having trouble in school, your first step should be to arrange a meeting with the teacher and school principal. At this meeting, clearly explain your concerns about your child’s academic performance. The school may first want to collect more information about your child or modify the teacher’s instruction before formally assessing them.

At that juncture, it’s important that you have some familiarity with your IDEA-sanctioned rights. Every state in the country maintains a parent training and information center (funded under IDEA) that advises parents on the school’s responsibilities and your child’s rights under the law. In Arizona, that center is Raising Special Kids, which is located in downtown Phoenix and serves parents statewide. Their phone number is 602-242-4366, and their email address is info@raisingspecialkids.org.

If you get stonewalled

Parents who’ve already learned the hard lessons of the evaluation process often say that the school moved slowly in addressing their child’s problems, or were hesitant to provide an evaluation at all. And considering the educational budget crisis in Arizona’s schools, it’s not hard to imagine why. But it’s your legal right to insist on it. If you think the school isn’t moving quickly enough, the best recourse is to mail a written request – with evidence to support it – to the school district’s director of special education for a comprehensive assessment.

If the school continues to drag their feet, parents should notify the school and school district’s special education department that they plan to enlist the help of a private assessment and to send the school and school district the bill. It’s important that you ensure you’ve already put the request for an assessment in writing and in the mail before going this route, with a copy of the request going to the school district. Establishing a paper trail will put things into action.

When you get the results

The whole purpose behind getting an assessment in the first place is to attain an accurate diagnosis. The diagnosis could range from anything from depression, anxiety and mild speech or hearing impediments, to more severe learning disabilities like autism, deaf-blindness, traumatic brain injuries and retardation. And, of course, the diagnosis could conclude your child has no learning disability at all.

Whatever the results, the diagnosis will form the basis of the treatment plan that follows it, so you want to ensure that the school performs a comprehensive test. That means an I.Q. test to identify the child’s strengths and weaknesses, a psychological evaluation and interviews with the child, parent and teacher.

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