Prior to 1975, millions of children with disabilities were either entirely excluded or included in public schools to a limited degree. In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act mandating that public schools not only educate students with disabilities but also provide them with necessary supports and services. Embedded within this law is parental involvement. Congress wrote parents into the legislation in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities would have advocates in securing their rights to a free, appropriate, public education.
This act has been reauthorized several times since 1975, and in 1990, it was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Throughout all of these changes, parental involvement has remained and, in fact, been strengthened in the legislation. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to parents effectively advocating for their children with disabilities. For example, it is difficult for parents to learn their special education rights. The IDEA legislation is vast and dense. To have a solid working knowledge of it would require that parents stay updated on federal and state regulations and district interpretations of the law. In combination with the difficulty of learning the law, parents also have difficulty effectively advocating for their children with disabilities. It is difficult for parents to be assertive (not aggressive) in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with the school; the power differential between the parent and the school, the emotion involved in discussing your child, and feelings of inadequacy are just a few factors contributing to parents’ difficulty in advocating for their children with disabilities.
Realizing the challenges parents face in advocating for their children with disabilities, The Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP) trains interested individuals to become special education advocates so they can provide instrumental and affective support to families of children with disabilities. Since its inception in fall of 2008, The VAP has trained more than 300 advocates across the state.
The VAP is comprised of three parts: (1) a 40-hour training, (2) the shadowing of a special education advocate, and (3) the linkage of the volunteer advocate with four families of children with disabilities.
The VAP has multiple sites across the state of Tennessee. The main site is in Nashville. From the Nashville site, the training is video-conferenced to other areas. In the past, the training has been video-conferenced to: Memphis, Martin, Jackson, Chattanooga, Johnson City, and Knoxville.
For each region of the state, various agencies work with the volunteer advocates.
East Tennessee: In East Tennessee, STEP (Support and Training for Exceptional Parents) provides the shadowing and linkage piece for the volunteer advocates.
Middle Tennessee: In Nashville, the volunteer advocates may shadow an employee of STEP, The Arc of Davidson County, or The Arc of Williamson County. Regarding the linkage, The Arc of Davidson County and The Arc of Williamson County link the volunteer advocates with families. For those in Chattanooga, the volunteer advocates shadow an employee and are linked by LifeLine.
West Tennessee: In West Tennessee, the volunteer advocates may shadow an employee of STEP or The Arc of the Mid-South. Both STEP and The Arc of the Mid-South link the volunteer advocates with families.
The next session of the VAP will be in the fall of 2013, held every Monday from 8:30-11:30 a.m. CST beginning Sept. 9. Please visit the VKC Events page for more information.
If you are in need of an advocate, please contact the appropriate agency.
For those interested in the training, please contact: