Education is a right that everyone should have regardless of their circumstances. Unfortunately, children with disabilities might not always be afforded the same privileges. When a school does not accommodate your child, a special education advocate or special needs advocate steps in.
Around the world, students with learning disabilities are not getting access to the special education services they need. This is the primary motivation for many special needs advocates to push for a more inclusive education system. If you’re interested in this career path, read on to find out how to become a special education advocate.
What Is a Special Education Advocate?
Special education advocates lobby for the special education services that a child with disabilities needs. They work on behalf of the child and his or her family to demand these basic education requirements from the child’s school.
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A child with special needs requires a specific environment to ensure a high standard of learning. Unfortunately, not all schools have this, and public schools are especially lacking. The advocate assists in improving conditions for all the children with special needs in the community.
What Does a Special Education Advocate Do?
In certain ways, a special education advocate is like many types of lawyers in that both deal with the law. However, advocates do not take the bar exam, and they are not allowed to draft legal documents.
Still, a special education advocate plays a vital role in ensuring that special education can be achieved through legal means. Some states even allow special education advocates to represent children and families in due process hearings.
In more general terms, special needs advocates have three basic responsibilities.
Knowing Policies and Procedures
A special education advocate must know the policies and procedures related to special education in their school district. This way, they can communicate with parents whose children are being underserved or mistreated.
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Connecting Families with Professionals
A special education advocate can immediately point you to experts and officials who can help you address a serious concern. Advocates must be connected with agencies that can conduct Independent Educational Evaluations (IEE), for instance.
A special education advocate can explain all kinds of assessments and reports related to your child. The advocate must be able to talk about this in a way that parents can easily understand.
Essential Special Education Advocate Skills
While special education advocates do not need formal training, there are certain skills that they must have. These skills will help them be successful advocates.
Familiarity with Federal, State, and Local Laws
Though not a lawyer, special education advocates in the United States must be familiar with federal law. They should also know the relevant state and local statutes. Knowing the laws helps advocates fulfill their responsibilities.
Ability to Review Important Documents
To advocate for your child, a special education advocate must review all kinds of important documents and explain them to concerned parents. Types of documentation include educational records, progress reports, and more.
Draft Letters and Requests
Though a special education advocate cannot provide legal advice, he or she can still draft letters to help the cause. These letters are often needed to speed up the advocacy process.
Special Education Advocate Salaries and Job Outlook
A special education advocate can either be a paid or volunteer position. Presently, the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics has no data on this. According to the Economic Research Institute, however, they earn an average of $40,298 per year.
Like lawyers dealing with special education law, a special education advocate can also offer services for free to certain families. There is no job outlook data for this at the moment, but special education advocates remain active in many communities.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Special Education Advocate?
There is currently no certificate program to train special education advocates, and you do not need to take a licensing exam to become a special education advocate.
Still, there are a couple of organizations that provide training for special education advocacy. William & Mary Law School hosts a five-day conference for experienced advocates, lawyers, and more. And the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) has a year-long course for special education advocates.
How to Become a Special Education Advocate: A Step-by-Step Guide
To become a special education advocate, you have to be able to process a lot of legal terms and procedures. But you also need to have soft skills like empathy, a strong work ethic, and flexibility. After all, you will be engaging in high-stakes fights for children’s rights.
Step 1: Earn a Degree
A bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, though not always necessary, helps with the legal side of the special education process. It will be most helpful if your degree is related to special education, early childhood education, education administration, or communications.
A non-practicing law degree is also a good bet. Knowing the law is crucial for advocacy work, and you can get an online master of legal studies degree fairly easily.
Step 2: Train with COPAA
The Council and Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) provides special education advocates with opportunities for training and certification. Their year-long training program for parents and professionals includes special education law, rights, and responsibilities.
COPAA does not only cover the legal and technical side. It also provides training for improving your communication skills, which you’ll need when dealing with kids with special needs. Having a good relationship with both the parent and the child is a must for this profession.
Step 3: Read Reliable Resources
Your first responsibility as a special education advocate is to read up on federal and state laws. This will help you navigate legal matters more effectively and prepare yourself for due process hearings.
You should also read up on how to manage children with special needs. One of the most important traits to learn is greater empathy. This will reassure your client that you’re the right person for the job.
Step 4: Complete Volunteer Work
Special education advocacy programs are a mix of professional work and volunteering. Doing volunteer work to help children with disabilities helps you learn more about their situations. You see first-hand why they need what you’re fighting for.
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Volunteer work is also a reminder that your work in advocacy is primarily to promote the common good. Your job will be to defend every child’s right to quality education and to remind institutions and states that education must always be inclusive.
Step 5: Join Organizations
Membership in an organization will give you a better sense of the landscape of special education in your state. Each state has its own Parent Information Center as well as a ton of resources. Joining COPAA is a must because they’re the first place to go for training.
Aside from these, you can also join organizations in related fields. Law organizations are for improving your legal knowledge. There are organizations for special education movements that you can consider as well.
Step 6: Attend More Training
Aside from COPAA, you can attend short training sessions related to special education advocacy. Certain law schools offer training workshops that span for only a few days. These are typically refreshers for advocates, special education attorneys, and other professionals.
Training can be a great resource for information about best practices. These training sessions will help you become better equipped to fight for your cause and for your clients.
Required Education to Become a Special Education Advocate
There is no specific degree for special education advocacy. Still, if this is the track that you want to pursue, other related degrees are helpful. Pre-law and law degrees are especially viable because being an advocate involves a lot of legal work.
You can also consider getting a teaching credential. Some special education advocates are also teachers, and you’ll need an array of teaching skills to succeed in a special education classroom. Whatever the case, any degree will work as long as you undergo training through reliable and legitimate institutions.
Best Programs and Courses to Become a Special Education Advocate
There are a few training programs available for special education advocacy. These classes are open to parents, former teachers, lawyers, and other professionals. They also cover important topics like how best to communicate with children with special needs.
- Provider: COPAA
- Time: August 2021, 10 weeks
- Prerequisites: None
- Price: $425 for COPAA members, $525 for non-members
COPAA’s SEAT training program for advanced beginners is the most well-known in the field. The Council has trained numerous parents, lawyers, and advocates. SEAT 1.0 is designed for those who want to learn the ropes of special education advocacy.
- Provider: CE Credits Online
- Time: Must complete the course within 180 days from purchase
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: $169
This course will cover the basic principles of special needs advocacy. It specifically discusses the legal side of the need for special needs education. You will also learn about Individualized Education Programs (IEP) and 504 plans, which are essential for special education.
- Provider: William & Mary Law School
- Time: January 10, 2021 to January 15, 2021
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: $825 for advocates, $950 for attorneys
This short virtual course will provide training for advocates and professionals on special education advocacy. It consists of 30 sessions covering laws, ethics, and best practices in advocacy.
Special Education Advocate Certificates
As part of your training, you can choose to enroll in a certification program from a reliable organization. A certificate will add credibility when applying for a competitive position.
- Provider: Drexel University Online
- Time: Spring 2021 or Fall 2021
- Prerequisites: None
- Cost: N/A (inquire by email)
This online program is a special training for those who need to collaborate in efforts to uphold mandates for special education needs. Some of the main lecturers in this program are special education hearing officers and IIEP facilitators.
- Provider: UTSA The Graduate School
- Time: Regular school year
- Prerequisites: bachelor’s degree, minimum 3.0 GPA
- Cost: N/A (inquire by email)
This graduate certificate includes four courses. The program will teach you how to facilitate IEPs. You will also develop your communication skills with parents and children.
Should You Become a Special Education Advocate in 2020?
A special education advocate prioritizes pushing for the best interests of students with special needs. Despite the existence of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, there are institutions that remain oblivious or noncompliant.
More than ever, special education advocates are needed in many communities. Protecting the rights of children and their parents remains the primary motivation for this advocacy. Continuing to fight for safe spaces for kids to learn is a necessity.
Special Education Advocate FAQ
It is most ideal to be a college graduate before becoming a special education advocate. You need college-level skills to understand laws and regulations. You must be good at both written and oral communication.
There are no exams at the moment. Currently, the best available option is to take training through organizations like COPAA. This training not only provides technical knowledge but also interpersonal skills that you will need as an advocate.
You do not necessarily need to study special education in college. A lot of current special education advocates were former lawyers. Still, pursuing a degree in education with a focus on special education will boost your resume.
Yes. While special education advocates do not handle legal cases, you would have to understand a state’s law. Much of the procedures that special education advocates go through involve a lot of legalities and dealing with the law.
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