This is how to lobby for education services.
In a previous post, Champion of Advocacy, I called Mom our champion. This is just part of the reason why. When I said we contacted legislators, I did not just mean a phone call. Mom dug in her heels and went all out.
In September of 1989, she and my dad attended the State Advisory Panel for Special Education where she had the privilege of making public comments to the panel. Her comments addressed:
1. The documented benefits of early intervention, and specifically, the need for our state to provide funding for the education of special needs pre-schoolers.
2. The need for outreach programs for add-on course certification for teachers of students with low-incidence handicaps such as blindness
3. The need for a computerized state resource-referral network which families could access in the first devastating days immediately following diagnosis. The process of education should begin right then, in a partnership between families and professional agencies…
Following the panel, she was part of an interview for an article in a Gainesville newspaper. In the interview, she explained how many children were having to move to another state to get the early services they need, siting the fact that Tennessee already provided preschool special education starting at age 3. Texas provided it for the deaf and blind from birth. At the time, an amendment required states applying for certain grants to provide a free and appropriate education for handicapped children aged 3 – 5 by the 1990-91 school year. However, if a state didn’t apply for the grant, they were not required to have a pre-school program. Our lobbying involved encouraging legislators to include in the next years budget the funding that had been already been requested by the Department of Human Resources (for children ages 0-2), and by the Department of Education (for ages 3-4).
In October, 1989, Mom wrote a letter to our Governor. She pointed out that she was not asking the state to spend more money, but instead to spend it earlier and more efficiently. She pointed out research that affirmed the importance and need for early intervention to enhance development. By giving special needs children the maximum chance to be productive members of society, it would actually save government costs.
Jess would turn three in July, 1990, and the school system still did not have a special education program in place for pre-schoolers. In June, 1990, I wrote a letter to my Congressman to express my concerns and frustrations over lack of educational opportunities for Jessica. Her doctor and parent advisors from Georgia PINES felt strongly that she needed to be in a classroom setting with normal, sighted, verbal, and mobile children. The only program already in place was Head Start, which she did not qualify for because we were not low-income enough. In my letter to the Congressman, I asked for a waiver to allow her to attend Head Start. That did not happen. I did get a return letter in which he explained that the House had approved legislation to expand Head Start programs but this would not be in place by the time school started for that school year.
Finally, in 1991, legislation passed to fund the education of pre-school special needs children in Georgia. Our State Representative, McCracken Poston, had provided ongoing support for our cause and lobbied with us for years. His assistance in getting the issue the attention it needed will not be forgotten. In August of 1991, Jess would start to public school. I think she was the first 4-year-old ever in our school system. There was no pre-school class. But she had a teacher and a school to go to.
In July 1992, three years after Mom started her major lobbying campaign for services, Jess turned 5-years-old. She was old enough to start to public school for kindergarten. That same year, our school system opened its first preschool class.
Lesson to take away…
– If you want to make changes it is hard work. Start now! It takes forever.
Next – A Trip Down the Half-Pipe
If you are new to Autism After School, Jess is an autistic and visually impaired young adult. I am telling our story to help other parents and professionals learn from our journey. My hope is to help others better prepare for experiences within the educational system and the transition to adulthood.