Advocacy for Children with Special Needs
by Mary Z. McGrath, Ph.D.
If you are a parent of a child with special needs you may have already come to the heart understanding that this child requires a unique gift of yourself. As the parent, certainly you know that you are that important “who", present for your child now and in the days ahead.
Yet as life unfolds and the years pass, others will continue to contribute their caring and expertise to ensure that your child reaches his/her potential in every way. These people who fill your child’s life with their talents and affirmation will include grandparents, siblings, other relatives, godparents, doctors, medical specialists, teachers, daycare providers and neighbors. In addition, community organization volunteers and staff, pastors and other church personnel as well as park and recreation workers will move in and out or your child’s life, weaving a net of safety and support.
With your heart and mind open to this complex and important role that life has offered you, you may wonder how this role of advocate will evolve in your day to day parenting and though the years ahead. How do you as a parent assume the role of child advocate for the one person who needs your efforts and expertise the most?
First and foremost, because of your primary relationship with the child, advocacy will come naturally as you experience situations and seek out opportunities. As a parent you have built in instincts and responses to the child that already equip you for this role. How does one then add to these natural inclinations and develop the role as advocate? Following are five suggestions, the "how" of parent advocacy for children with special needs.
1. Learn. Gain information and “ know how” from medical and school personnel about your child’s physical and emotional makeup. Find out about their academic, social and relational potential. Read everything you can get your hands on that is recommended by experts on your child’s disability. Know what works best for their learning style and behavioral training needs.
2. Build Bridges. Become the link your child needs by being a supporter of your child’s school staff. Offer your time and assistance to them. Establish yourself as a team member, attending conferences with the attitude of creating partnerships to help your child. Consider that in some instances you will find yourself in the role of educator for school staff and be prepared to respectfully provide information that will help them help your child.
3. Scope Out the Social. Seek out programs and create community for your child wherever you can. Invite children and families to join you on park outings, parties, and positive experiences that you as parents and your young people create as a group.
4. Join Formal Advocacy Groups. With the help of your local medical or educational resource specialists, or the public library, seek out the organization specifically set up to assist parents with your particular concern. There are organizations to support parents of children with learning disabilities, autism, Downs syndrome and attention deficit disorder to only mention of few. You may also be provided with supportive individuals trained to assist you with concerns unique to your child and their school program.
Organizations for professional educators often provide parent memberships as well. Of benefit to you will be the organization’s conferences and educational publications to help you grow in awareness of new methods of instruction and program possibilities for your child.
5. Acceptance. Your acceptance of your child’s strengths as well as their challenge areas will not only help you to connect and communicate with them, but it will also help you to educate others. Your confidence and matter-of-fact attitude both at family gatherings and in the community sends the message, not only to your child, but to others as well, that this young person deserves dignity and respect. The way you treat your child teaches others how to treat everyone with special needs.
As a parent of your special child, you have the opportunity to bring richness and fullness to their present and future. By growing in advocacy, you will not only open doors for your child, but you will also bring purpose and meaning to the lives of others while enriching your own.
Mary Z. McGrath, Ph.D. works with schools, organizations and parents who support wellness and the family’s potential. She is the author of Teachers in Transition: Growing Forward Through Retirement (Rowman Education) and Teachers Today: A Guide to Surviving Creatively (Corwin Press), and a member of the National Speakers Association. Visit her website, www.maryzmcgrath.com for more parenting information.
Permission granted to download and reprint this article with use of above credit.
Mary Z. McGrath, Ph.D., speaker, writer and caregiver, works with schools, organizations and parents who support wellness and the family’s potential. Check www.maryzmcgrath,com for more information.
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