Advocating for the rights of students with special needs would seem to be the epitome of a noble cause. Offering a voice to those so often marginalized by circumstance should be praiseworthy. One would think those doing so would have the purest intentions and the kindest hearts. All of this might be true of some special needs advocates. Many may be genuine defenders of dignity. However, taking a moment to consider the nature of their work reveals the possibility of less wholesome intentions.
Identifying special needs advocates is crucial to this analysis. The advocates in question represent children with disabilities and by extension, the families of these children. They do most of their advocacy in schools, typically joining parents for meetings with school personnel or guiding parents through educational decisions. Their role is to support the child and family by assuring necessary services are properly in place. So far, this doesn’t suggest anything ignoble.
This role—and even the word ‘advocate’—may connote ideas of legal representation. In this context, these advocates aren’t attorneys, though their roles may blend somewhat with counsel. Attorneys can be advocates of a sort and many market themselves as such. The role of attorneys in special education is monumental, but exists alongside that of special needs advocates. For the purposes of this article, special needs advocates usually are social workers. They tend to have Bachelor’s degrees, though some may have Master’s degrees. Their level of experience varies greatly, but most have some grounding in social welfare before becoming advocates. Again, nothing about this should undermine their standing, or at least not yet.
Despite a possible overlap in training, the work of special needs advocates differs from that of other social workers. Advocates aren’t supports coordinators working for an agency or county office. Supports coordinators are appointed to connect qualifying families with services. Advocates aren’t case managers working in conjunction with a court or other entity. Case managers are assigned to assist families through periods of distress. In most cases, special needs advocates aren’t appointed or assigned. The greatest distinction from other social workers is families usually hire special needs advocates. Being hired separates the work they do from that of their social worker peers, but doesn’t necessarily indicate any kind of fault.
Special needs advocates sometimes work for agencies or nonprofit organizations, but they just as often work as independent contractors. Families seek them on their own or at the recommendation of other social workers or even attorneys. Currently, no certification exists for advocates, so families can’t necessarily filter for quality when shopping. Though most advocates have social work backgrounds, some become advocates by simply calling themselves such. They might not have relevant degrees or training. Variance in experience would be acceptable and has to exist in any field, but variance in training threatens the sanctity of what advocates do. Without a need for credentials, no assumptions can be made about what expertise an advocate brings to a discussion. This becomes a legitimate problem when the perceived importance of their role is exposed.
Families may bring anyone they wish to most special education meetings. Though schools must let families know who will be present, families have no such obligation. This may seem like an imbalance, but it can be a boon to families. Some parents or guardians will bring extended family members or friends to meetings for support, even if these parties don’t possess any education or social work background. Families who hire advocates hope to have a more informed player on their side. The desire for this is understandable.
Special education meetings can be overwhelming. In addition to absorbing the jargon and barrage of information presented at meetings, families have to be vigilant when facing school officials. These officials may gloss over or downplay issues, especially issues resulting from shortcomings on the school’s part. Officials may try to offer minimal supports and may attempt to hurry parents or guardians into signing off on such programming. Less insidiously, schools may have hundreds of students with special needs and because of this, officials may need to hold a dozen or more meetings per week. Even if officials are forthright, time constraints may result in school teams approaching meetings with an unintentionally impersonal feel. Parents or guardians may feel intimidated and thus hesitant to voice concerns. Considering all of this, the role of advocates begins to feel vital.
Perhaps their role is vital in many cases. This is what can make the involvement of advocates so perilous. Families hope to have an informed party to speak up on their child’s behalf, but they might have someone with a title but little understanding of processes. Having such a person involved in the design of an educational plan can be anything from obstructive to dangerous. Families expect what the advocate suggests to have merit. Sometimes it will have merit, though sometimes it will lack any worthwhile place in the conversation. Intrusions like this bleed into the next problem with advocates: the motivations of families who hire them.
For as contentious as special education can be, most teams—which include family members—handle cases without incident. Uninvolved families and intensely involved families exist at opposite ends of a bell curve, with moderate families making up the bulk of the distribution. The families who seek advocates tend to be the more involved type. Often, their high involvement can be traced to them feeling slighted by a school in some way. They may be justified in feeling this. Many schools struggle with providing for students with special needs and some make grave mistakes and oversights along the way. If a parent or guardian feels a school has been failing to support their child, they’re likely to seek support from a third party. They might seek it because they’re expecting to walk into a fight with a school.
Advocate involvement becomes highly questionable when adversarial parents hire them. True, many parents hire advocates to protect against further school error, but a vast number hire advocates out of defensiveness. Often, the parents are the ones creating the tension. Though this is difficult to quantify, a disproportionate number of parents of special needs children are protective to the point of paranoia. For some, this might stem from the trials of raising a disabled child. For others, the combative stance against schools may result from their own school experiences. It also may be a function of cultural upbringing. Some families come from communities in which schools aren’t trusted or valued. Whatever the reason, advocates frequently accompany quarrelsome families seeking to do battle with school officials.
The advocates who work with these cantankerous families are almost predatory. To justify their involvement, they have to find something wrong with a school’s program for the child. The parent or guardian may have identified this from the onset as it may be some kind of perennial issue. Sometimes no such issue exists, or if it had existed, the team has addressed it. The advocate may feed ideas to a parent or guardian about services or programs that should be in place. While these might benefit the child, the advocate usually isn’t someone with enough of a background in pedagogy to make worthwhile recommendations. Hearing the advocate’s message may place an unshakable notion into a parent or guardian’s head, which can be problematic if the service or program isn’t available or necessary. Furthermore, even if an issue has been resolved, the advocate may need to pick at the school looking for some new issue as a way of staying relevant and needed. This tendency towards self-perpetuation can create unneeded headaches for schools.
Most advocates indeed work for families by hire. A small contingency are appointed, and sometimes by the school. The majority of these are educational surrogates. They make educational decisions for children living in foster or group homes when legal custodians aren’t in place. Though they represent some of the most vulnerable students in schools, their qualifications are the most wide-open of the advocates. Again, some work for agencies and are social workers, but others have scattered credentials and may be on the cusp of adult literacy and functionality. Like the advocates who need to justify their continued involvement, appointed educational surrogates appear most valuable and retainable if they can score some windfall for students they represent. Nobility erodes under these pretenses.
The most troublesome advocates are those with poor understanding of special education protocol plus a misguided desire to defend a student against perceived injustice. Some feel driven to act as civil rights defenders when a child’s civil rights aren’t in jeopardy. They may be acting earnestly, but too often they unnecessarily complicate proceedings. Pushing for legal action is common. Litigation can help a child get a needed provision, but also it can tie up a school’s resources. When legal action is sought for something a child doesn’t genuinely need, the only party benefitting may be the advocate who pushed for litigation.
A related but sensitive issue involves the children often represented. Advocates frequently work on behalf of student with profound disabilities. The ultimate benefit of whatever service or program is in dispute might be marginal at best for these students. Situations such as this again may cause observers to wonder who the advocate’s efforts serve.
Whether advocates are self-serving or delusional, what they do can be seen as exploitative. They can offer a valuable service when supporting families who struggle to navigate the confusing waters of special education. Their assistance is less welcome when they’re poorly informed or when they’re helping families pick unnecessary fights with schools. At their worst, advocates use the predicament of disabled young people as a platform for profit or a sense of civil self-fulfillment. They may resemble the stereotype of vulture attorneys, but they have significantly less expertise. This can make them a costly liability. Much like other phenomena in special education, the work of advocates would seem to full of golden intentions, but is actually steeped in conflict and complexity.