"IEP" stands for "Individualized Education Program".
If your child is receiving Early Intervention Services such as Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy or Speech Therapy, those services will most likely become the responsibility of your local public school system once your child turns three (depending on your state). Some insurance companies will not cover services such as speech therapy once your child turns three because they assume your child will be receiving those services through the public school system.
For some background and history, this video is worth your time:
It is important to remember that our nation's school system did not make these changes voluntarily. The changes came because Federal Law imposed them on the school system. While there are MANY talented, hard-working and committed educators in our special education programs, it is unwise to assume that every teacher and administrator in your school district supports the concept, goals and additional expenditures that come with a special education program. This is one of the reasons IEPs are a necessity.
Anecdotally, I have had wonderful, kind and compassionate educators (personal friends) tell me that they absolutely do not think children with disabilities should be integrated into the general school population (I disagree). I have had a number of special education teachers (not in my district) tell me that even when they know their school district offers a program that would help one of their students, they are forbidden by their district to inform the parents because the additional services cost, you guessed it; additional money. Imagine if you took your child to the doctor and the doctor knew what was wrong and knew what would cure the illness but refused to tell you. Sadly, that is the state of certain areas of special education these days. It's getting better but just as the Emancipation Proclamation did not cure racism overnight, our special education laws did not immediately and completely do away with discrimination against those with disabilities.
Special Education does not "just happen" the way typical education does. A good IEP will not only be the vehicle that will provide your child's education, it will protect it as well. As a parent, you are the primary key to whether your child's IEP is robust and effective or otherwise. Believe me, much to my shame, I know from experience. For a laugh, you can read my post entitled "How I Botched My Daughter's First IEP".
But who wants to read a bunch of special education legal mumbo-jumbo? Nobody. But it has to be done. That's why I recommend starting when your child turns two years old. This will give you a full year to read and educate yourself little by little at a comfortable and workable pace.
Familiarize yourself with the the five main laws concerning IEP's, Special Education and Disability. You don't have to read the actual laws but a scan of the "high points" on Wikipedia is worth your time:
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
In addition, your state may have passed laws strengthening the Federal Laws. For instance, those in California would want to take a look at the Lanterman Act.
- Friends and Family: Chances are, you know a teacher. They may not be a Special Ed teacher but I bet they know someone who is. Make a connection, buy them coffee, ask them for the top ten things that make an IEP great. Contacting teachers in a different school district than your own is great as they may feel more free to advise you.
- Other Parents: Talk with other parents who have had children in Special Ed for at least a couple of years. Take advantage of their wisdom gained through experience .
- Special Education Rights and Responsibilities Handbook: This is a free publication from Disability Rights California. It combines both Federal Law and California law so every last sentence may not apply to your state however it is an excellent resource to get you familiar with the IEP process.
- Spend Some Money at Wrightslaw: Wrightslaw is considered by many to be the premiere source for Special Education guidance. You can find their books on Amazon as well. They also have an email newsletter you can sign up for - which I recommend.
- Check Out Disability Rights Advocates: DRA is a non-profit legal center whose mission is to ensure dignity, equality, and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities throughout the United States and worldwide.
- Google "Special Education Advocacy" in your area and see what comes up. Chances are, you will find an organization you can consult with or possibly even take a class on IEPs that is offered.
- Join the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates: They have resources as well as an email newsletter that will help you become familiar with current issues and trends in Special Education
- Check Out the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund: More resources
Resources for California:
Special Education Advocacy Certificate Program: This training is designed not only to help parents and professionals better understand special education law and its application, but also to help future advocates develop the skills to effectively facilitate the IEP process. Ultimately, we seek to reduce the barriers between parents and schools in order to promote good communication and effective negotiation, in addition to working ethically and responsibly for the benefit of the child with special needs.
Team of Advocates for Special Kids (TASK)
Team of Advocates for Special Kids (TASK) is a nonprofit charitable organization whose mission is to enable individuals with disabilities to reach their maximum potential by providing them, their families and the professionals who serve them with training, support, information, resources and referrals, and by providing community awareness programs.
Disability Rights California
Mission Statement: Advance the rights of Californians with disabilities.
Compass Center at University of San Diego
The COMPASS Family Center is a San Diego non-profit organization that provides family-centered supports for those caring for a child or adult with special needs.
State Council on Developmental Disabilities
The Council advocates, promotes and implements policies and practices that achieve self-determination, independence, productivity and inclusion in all aspects of community life for Californians with developmental disabilities and their families.
Advocate Yellow Pages
I KNOW. It's A LOT. But it is worth it. If your child has a physical or cognitive delay/disability, the sooner you get them the best possible educational help, the better. As I said earlier, there are ANGELS in Special Education who want to work hard to see your little one thrive . . . but they aren't all angels, and often the angels aren't the ones controlling the budgets. In many respects YOU are your child's guardian angel - become their educational angel too. Even angels have to sharpen their swords from time to time.