When your child is diagnosed with a disability, you’ll enter an alternate and parallel dimension: the special education system.
Look out: acronyms ahead! You may need a special education glossary like this one from understood.org. Understood.org is a fantastic resource for parents looking to understand the special education system, what you can expect, and how to advocate for your child.
Birth to Kindergarten
If you have a concern about how your child sees, hears, walks, talks, plays, or learns between birth and kindergarten, you can ask for a developmental evaluation. Screen your child’s development using this online tool from the Oregon Screening Project out of the Center for Human Development at the University of Oregon. Call 503-261-5535 to get in touch with the Multnomah Early Childhood Program (MECP). They will do several observations and interviews to assess your child.
The results of the MECP evaluation may diagnose your child with a disability and qualify them for early intervention special education services. Early intervention could include services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, parent education, or special education preschool. You’ll meet with a team to develop an Individual and Family Support Plan (IFSP) that outlines which services your child and family will receive, how much, when, and where. MECP services are free. They are part of public school.
Children with disabilities in K-12 school have Individualized Education Plans (IEP) or 504 Plans. Both outline what services and accommodations your child needs to be successful at school. Your child will qualify for an IEP if they have one of 13 disabilities defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IEPs have a more formal, standardized format and process for describing a child’s present levels, their annual goals, accommodations and modifications, service levels, and classroom placement. A child qualifies for a 504 Plan if they have any disability that interferes with their ability to learn or navigate their school day. Learn more about the differences between an IEP and 504 Plan here and what you can expect from each.
If a child has an IFSP, you and your team will write an IEP when they go to kindergarten. Some disabilities don’t become apparent until a child enters school: ADHD or dyslexia for example. Parents or educators who notice a child struggling in school can request an educational evaluation. That evaluation may lead to a diagnosis and an IEP or 504 plan. Getting an evaluation and effective IEP after starting school has been known to take more parent advocacy.
When an IEP is in place, the child’s entire educational team meets annually to write the IEP for the coming year. As a parent, you are an important part of that team. The IEP includes a section for parent input where you can write about your child’s strengths, interests, and challenges to help the school know your child. Your child is assessed every three years to determine that they still qualify for special education services.
Graduation and beyond
During the IEP meeting of your child’s sophomore year of high school, you’ll begin talking about diploma options and plans for after high school.
You don’t have to navigate this system alone! Families and Communities Together (FACT Oregon) is a statewide group offering broad support for families experiencing disability. They offer help through parent education, connection to community, and a support line connecting you with other parents to help answer questions. The IEP Toolkit and The IEP: What You Need to Know online training are two of their most popular resources.
Special education can be complicated and confusing, and you might feel you need a second education about special education. The many resources and support options help you understand and advocate for your child throughout their school life.