Speak and Be Heard

Special-education students are learning that their own best advocates may be themselves.

Chris looks the part of the bad kid: His hair is dyed an unnatural-looking shade of red; he wears spikes around his neck, which he confesses aren't allowed in school; and with his red plaid pants, black leather jacket and blue backpack inscribed with the word "fuck," he'd seem more at home at the Mercury Cafe than at the Chipotle he frequents across from his suburban high school. He may even act the part sometimes. He's had a couple of minor brushes with the law, the details of which Karen doesn't wish to see in print, and he admits to having experimented with drugs.

But Chris isn't a bad kid. He's just a teenager who's struggling to do better in school. And like a lot of students his age, he's starting to learn that his best advocate may be himself. In fact, speaking up in his own behalf was written into his IEP at the beginning of the school year.

But writing a goal down on paper and achieving it are two different things. Chris has one teacher who, he says, believes kids should never question authority. When he tries to speak up about a particular need in that class, the teacher writes him a referral for talking back. "Sometimes I'll be like, 'I had band late last night,' or 'I didn't understand the assignment,' and I'll ask if I can turn it in later, but she tells me she won't treat me different than the other kids."

Stan Lambros founded L.E.A.D. seven years ago.
Mark A. Manger
Stan Lambros founded L.E.A.D. seven years ago.
Cheyenne Mountain High School freshmen Hillary Howes and Quinton Wilder are both in L.E.A.D.
Mark A. Manger
Cheyenne Mountain High School freshmen Hillary Howes and Quinton Wilder are both in L.E.A.D.

That teacher may have to get used to students speaking up. "Self-advocacy" has become the new buzzword in special education as many parents and teachers have recognized the importance of encouraging kids to become active participants in their own education. But as Chris has discovered, self-advocacy is a long way from being the solution to the problems that have always plagued special-education students. Talk to almost any parent whose child has a learning disability, and she'll say she isn't satisfied with the services her school is providing. Ask any teacher, and he'll say he's doing the best he can given how underfunded and short-staffed special education is in the public school system.

Kids who are trying to advocate for themselves often face the same obstacles as their parents: skepticism about the legitimacy of certain learning disabilities, and the belief some educators hold that they're the experts when it comes to determining kids' needs. Even parents themselves sometimes prevent their children from having any meaningful involvement in their education because they feel the need to protect them.

But in cases in which parents are willing to relinquish some control and teachers realize that the people who know what's best for kids may be kids themselves, self-advocacy is proving to be an essential part of the social and academic lives of special-needs students.

Stan Lambros knows what it's like to go through school with a learning disability. He also knows what it's like to feel stupid because you can't understand what comes so easily to other kids. Lambros has a learning disability that makes simple math problems difficult.

"Intellectually, I was able to keep up, but mechanically, I couldn't," Lambros says of his school days. "A lot of kids can keep up intellectually but can't read or write."

As an adult, Lambros became a counselor at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs. He decided that he wanted to give his students something he never had: a way to educate themselves about their learning disabilities. "As a counselor, I ran support groups for divorce and other issues," he says, "so I thought, why not pull together a group for kids with learning disabilities?"

Seven years ago, he formed Learning and Education About Disabilities (L.E.A.D.), the first group of its kind in the country. Enrollment in the class has grown from seven kids to 25. The course is offered as an elective at the school, and L.E.A.D. has become a national model in the new self-advocacy movement. Twice a week, students meet to discuss the technical aspects of learning disabilities. They find out exactly what dyslexia or ADHD is, for example; they learn about special-education laws and their rights under them; they're taught the difference between a 504 plan and an IEP, as well as how to speak up during the meetings in which those plans are discussed; and they're told what IQ scores mean. When one of the students' 504 or IEP meetings nears, the group reviews the student's file and provides tips on how to handle it.

"A lot of kids don't know these terms and laws, because their parents have always been in control," Lambros says. "If a parent runs a 504 meeting, it usually takes 45 minutes to an hour, but if a kid does it, it lasts twelve minutes, because they can come in and say what their needs are and negotiate with the teacher. As a teacher, you're more apt to deal with a fifteen-year-old kid than an angry parent.

"We sort of do these parent-ectomies," he continues. "At some point, these kids have to say, 'This is my life, and this is what I need.' I try not to impose my own opinions on the group, but I know that when I became successful, my mom couldn't do anything more for me, because I had surpassed her."

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