Beyond the IEP
by Vejas Vasiliauskas
Self-advocacy is very empowering, and can start from very early on in a child’s life.
IEP meetings serve as an opportunity for children and teenagers to begin to self-advocate. The IEP gives the child or teenager the opportunity to create their own goals and have a say on the goals created by their teachers and parents. It can be helpful to have discussions in advance before the meeting itself. Because an IEP falls during school-time, the student will need to miss part of the school-day to attend.
Looking back at my own IEP experience, I am very grateful for my parents’ involvement: they worked to create the agenda and often discussed goals ahead of time with my teachers to ensure that these would be addressed. However, I wish I had understood the importance of the IEP and made more of an effort to attend. I knew the meetings were about me, but I did not really feel a sense of responsibility, and if there was an event happening in one of my classes, I saw this as a priortion to the IEP. It is important to keep in mind that the IEP only falls twice per year and that there are many other opportunities for children to socialize and catch up with their schoolwork. If a student can participate in age-appropriate discussions with their parents and teachers about their goals from a young age, this will make it much easier when they are 17 and have their final IEP. This final IEP can be especially critical because college disability services will often use them in helping them decide which accommodations a student should have.
Once I finished high school, I did not have any more IEP meetings, but rather an Individualized Plan of Employment IPE) with the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR). I became a DOR client soon after I turned 18, although I have heard of cases where one can become a client earlier. The IPE serves as an employment plan, with the case closing after the person is employed. This can be very overwhelming for a student, because even these without disabilities often have no idea what they want to do or where they want to go when they leave high school. Therefore, unfortunately, students often need to make quicker decisions which their peers don’t need to make yet. In my case, the fact that I had already been accepted into a university meant that I did not have to decide on a final employment goal, so I was given the very general “counselor” goal. I followed up with my counselor every year, and recently reviewed my IPE to reflect my current goal of finishing the master’s program at Cal State LA.
Requesting college accommodations is much different from requesting them in elementary through high school. Just because a college student has a disability does not automatically make them eligible for accommodations. It is crucial to get in touch with your school’s disability services long before the school-year starts. This was especially important for me because over the summer, I was expected to take a math placement exam, and I needed to have both the exam and the practice materials available in Braille.
When I first began the process of requesting accommodations, I relied more heavily on my parents for support. They attended my initial meetings with the Disability Services and assisted me in communicating with them. Their support was extremely crucial for me when I had to have a follow-up meeting to justify my accommodations. However, by the second semester of my freshman year, I began taking much more responsibility in advocating for myself. If I needed a reader for an assignment, I would make sure to email my office in advance so that it was not too last-minute. If I ever needed a textbook to be scanned, I made sure to buy the book and let my DSS know which sections were needed by when. Although I asked my parents to be a part of my meeting with my graduate school’s disability services, I took the lead role in this meeting and felt very confident in doing so. The initial accommodations before the first year are most difficult, because accommodations will carry over into the following years.
It is important to remember never to assume that the Disability Services automatically knows your needs. There are times where you may need to justify an accommodation if they do not understand how you use a certain tool. For example, initially I was denied the ability to use my iPhone for tests. Once I was able to show them how I pair my phone with my Braille notetaker and use the word processor and mail applications, they were much more willing to allow me to use it.
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