Exploring Assistive Technology: Understanding, Access, and Resources for All Ages and Abilities

Brief overview:

  • Access to assistive technology (AT) is protected by four federal laws.
  • The U.S. Department of Education has released guidance on the specific requirements about providing AT under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The guidance takes the form of detailed explanations for many misunderstood facts about using AT in schools and early intervention services. It is available online and in PDF form in English and Spanish.
  • AT can be very simple and low-cost, or it may be high-tech or large and expensive. Resources for deciding on AT devices and services and buying or getting low-cost or free TA are included in the article.

Full Article

You can also type “assistive technology” in the search bar at wapave.org to find other articles where assistive technology is mentioned.

What is assistive technology (AT)? Who uses it? Where is it used?
Assistive technology (AT) is any item, device, or piece of equipment used by people with disabilities to maintain or improve their ability to do things. AT allows people with disabilities to be more independent in education, at work, in recreation, and daily living activities. AT might be used by a person at any age—from infants to very elderly people.

AT includes the services necessary to get AT and use it, including assessment (testing), customizing it for an individual, repair, and training in how to use the AT. Training can include training the individual, family members, teachers and school staff or employers in how to use the AT.

Some examples of AT include:

  • High Tech: An electronic communication system for a person who cannot speak; head trackers that allow a person with no hand movement to enter data into a computer
  • Low Tech: A magnifying glass for a person with low vision; a communication board made of cardboard for a person who cannot speak
  • Big: An automated van lift for a wheelchair user
  • Small: A grip attached to a pen or fork for a person who has trouble with his fingers
  • Hardware: A keyboard-pointing device for a person who has trouble using her hands
  • Software: A screen reading program, such as JAWS, for a person who is blind or has other disabilities

You can find other examples of AT for people of all ages on this Fact Sheet from the Research and Training Center on Promoting Interventions for Community Living.

Select the AT that works best:

Informing Families, a website from the Developmental Disabilities Administration, suggests this tip: “Identify the task first. Device Second. There are a lot of options out there, and no one device is right for every individual. Make sure the device and/or apps are right for your son or daughter and try before you buy.”

AT3 Center, a national site for AT information, has links describing, finding and buying a wide variety of assistive technology, with text in English and Spanish.

Understood.org offers a series of articles about AT focused on learning in school, for difficulties in math, reading, writing, and more.

Who decides when AT is needed?  Your child’s medical provider or team may suggest the AT and services that will help your child with their condition. If your child is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), an Individualized Family Services Plan (IFSP), or a 504 plan, access to AT is required by law. In that case, the team designing the plan or program will decide if AT is needed, and if so, what type of AT will be tried. Parents and students, as members of the team, share in the decision-making process. A process for trying out AT is described on Center for Parent Information and Resources, Considering Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities.

Access to assistive technology (AT) is protected by four laws:

  1. The AT Act of 2004 requires states to provide access to AT products and services that are designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities. The law created AT agencies in every state. State AT agencies help you find services and devices that are covered by insurance, sources for AT if you are uninsured, AT “loaner” programs to try a device or service, options to lease a device, and help you connect with your state’s Protection and Advocacy Program if you have trouble getting, using, or keeping an assistive service or device. Washington State’s AT agency, Washington Assistive Technology Act Program (WATAP), has a “library” of devices to loan for a small fee and offers demonstrations of how a device or program works.

IDEA Part C includes AT devices and services as an early intervention service for infants and toddlers, called Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) in Washington State. AT can be included in the child’s Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). When a toddler transitions from early intervention services to preschool, AT must be considered whether or not a child currently has AT services through an IFSP.

It’s important that a student’s use of AT is specified in their post-secondary Transition Plan. This will document how the student plans to use AT in post-secondary education and future employment and may be needed when asking for accommodations from programs, colleges and employers when IDEA and IEPs no longer apply.

Guidance on assistive technology (AT) from the U.S. Department of Education

In January 2024, the U.S. Department of Education sent out a letter and guidance document on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requirements for assistive technology for children under Part C and Part B of IDEA.

The guidance document is available online and in a downloadable pdf in English and Spanish. It includes common “Myths and Facts” about AT. The document is designed to help parents, early intervention providers, educators, related service providers, school and district administrators, technology specialists and directors, and state agencies understand what IDEA requires.

For instance, there are examples of what IFSPs might include:

  • A functional AT evaluation to assess if an infant or toddler could benefit from AT devices and services;
  • AAC devices (e.g., pictures of activities or objects, or a handheld tablet) that help infants and toddlers express wants and needs;
  • Tactile books that can be felt and experienced for infants and toddlers with sensory issues;
  • Helmets, cushions, adapted seating, and standing aids to support infants and toddlers with reduced mobility; and
  • AT training services for parents to ensure that AT devices are used throughout the infant or toddler’s day.

For IEPs, some important facts from the guidance document are:

  • Each time an IEP Team develops, reviews, or revises a child’s IEP, the IEP Team must consider whether the child requires AT devices and services (in order to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
  • If the child requires AT, the local educational agency (LEA) is responsible for providing and maintaining the AT and providing any necessary AT service. The IEP team can decide what type of AT will help the child get a meaningful educational benefit.
  • The IEP must include the AT to be provided in the statement on special education, related services, and supplementary aids and services.
  • A learner’s AT device should be used at home as well as at school, to ensure the child is provided with their required support.
  • AT devices and services should be considered for a child’s transition plan as they can create more opportunities for a child to be successful after high school. (Note: AT can be an accommodation used in post-secondary education and in a job).

If a student is already using AT devices or services that were owned or loaned to the family, such as a smartphone, theguidance includes information about how to write it into an IEP or an agreement between the parents and school district.

Paying for AT

Some types of AT may be essential for everyday living including being out in the community and activities of daily living like eating, personal hygiene, moving, or sleeping. When a child has an AT device or service to use through an IFSP, IEP, or 504 plan, the device or service belongs to the school or agency, even if it’s also used at home. All states have an AT program that can help a school select and try out an AT device. These programs are listed on the Center for Assistive Technology Act Data Assistance (CATADA) website. A child’s AT devices and services should be determined by the child’s needs and not the cost.

When a child graduates or transitions out of public school, they may need or want AT for future education or work. In these cases, families can look for sources of funding for the more expensive types of AT. Here are some additional programs that may pay for AT devices and services:

AT for Military Families

Some programs specific to the United States Armed Forces may cover certain types of assistive technology as a benefit.It’s important for Active-Duty, National Guard, Veteran and Coast Guard families to know that they are eligible for assistive technology programs that also serve civilians, including those in Washington State.

If the dependent of an Active-Duty servicemember is eligible for TRICARE Extended Care Health Option (ECHO), assistive technology devices and services may be covered with some restrictions. The program has an annual cap for all benefits and cost-sharing, so the cost of the AT must be considered. The AT must be pre-authorized by a TRICARE provider and received from a TRICARE-licensed supplier. If there is a publicly funded way to get the assistive technology (school, Medicaid insurance, Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services Waiver, state AT agency loaner device, or any source of taxpayer-funded access to AT), the military family must first exhaust all possibilities of using those sources before ECHO will authorize the AT.

Some types of AT, such as Durable Medical Equipment, may be covered under a family’s basic TRICARE insurance plan.

The United States Coast Guard’s Special Needs Program may include some types of assistive technology as a benefit.

Additional Resources
Assistive Technology

Does my child qualify for Assistive Technology (AT) in school?

Movers, Shakers, and Troublemakers: How Technology Can Improve Mobility and Access for Children with Disabilities

Low tech tool ideas that can be used to increase Healthcare Independence

Early Learning Toolkit: Overview of Services for Families of Young Children

Presenting our newest resource – the 3-5 Transition Toolkit – A guide to Washington services for 3-5 year olds with disabilities. This toolkit encompasses a collection of our informative articles, complemented by sample letters to provide you with a solid foundation as you navigate through this crucial transition period.

New parents have a lot to manage. Concern about whether a child’s growth and development are on track can be confusing. This toolkit provides places to begin if caregivers suspect that a baby or young child may need services due to a developmental delay or disability.

How do I know if my child is developmentally delayed?

Washington families concerned about a child’s development can call the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588 (TTY 1.800.833.6384) to connect with a Family Resource Coordinator (FRC). Support is provided in English, Spanish and other languages. Families can access developmental screening online for free at Parent Help 123 developmental screening tool.

In addition, several state agencies collaborated to publish Early Learning and Development Guidelines. The booklet includes information about what children can do and learn at different stages of development, from birth through third grade. Families can purchase a hard copy of the guidelines from the state Department of Enterprise Services. Order at: myprint.wa.gov. A free downloadable version is available in English and Spanish from the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): Early Learning and Development Guidelines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) manages a campaign to Learn the Signs. Act Early. The website includes tools for tracking milestones and materials for families to learn more and plan home-based activities to promote skill development.

Birth-3 services are provided by ESIT

In Washington, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) administers services for eligible children from birth to age 3 through Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT). Families can contact ESIT directly, or they can reach out to their local school district to request an evaluation to determine eligibility and consider what support a child might need. ESIT provides information on a page called Parent Rights and Leadership, with procedural safeguards described in a brochure that can be downloaded in multiple languages.

Evaluation determines eligibility

After a referral is accepted, a team of professionals uses standardized tools and observations to evaluate a young child’s development in five areas:

·       Physical: Reaching for and grasping toys, crawling, walking, jumping

·       Cognitive: Watching activities, following simple directions, problem-solving

·       Social-emotional: Making needs known, initiating games, starting to take turns

·       Communication: Vocalizing, babbling, using two- to three-word phrases

·       Adaptive: Holding a bottle, eating with fingers, getting dressed

Services are provided through an IFSP

Children who qualify receive services through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). Early learning programs are designed to enable success in the child’s natural environment (home, daycare, etc.), which is where the child would be if disability was not a factor. PAVE provides more information in an article and a two-part video series: 

 IDEA includes three parts

The federal law that protects children with disabilities and creates a funding source for services to meet their individualized needs is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

  1. Part A includes general guidance about the rights of children 0-21 with disabilities.
  2. Part B protects eligible students ages 3-21 with the right to school-based services delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  3. Part C guarantees the right to early intervention services for children Birth-3 who meet eligibility criteria.

PAVE provides an overview article about the federal law and its primary features: IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education.

Child Find protects the right to evaluation

Under IDEA, school districts have the affirmative duty to seek out and evaluate children with known or suspected disabilities who live within their boundaries. That affirmative duty is protected through IDEA’s Child Find Mandate.

Child Find Mandate protects:

  • Children Birth-3 with known or suspected disability conditions that may significantly impact the way they learn and engage within their natural environment
  • Students 3-21 who may be significantly impacted in their ability to access grade-level learning at school because of a known or suspected disability condition

If these criteria are met, the school district in which the child lives has the duty to evaluate to determine eligibility for services. For more information, PAVE provides an article: Child Find: Schools Have a Legal Duty to Evaluate Children Impacted by Disability.

Information for children 3-5 or older

Children with early intervention services are evaluated to determine whether they are eligible for school-based services when they turn 3.

If a child did not receive early intervention services but disability is suspected or shown to impact learning, a family caregiver or anyone with knowledge of a child’s circumstances can request that the school district evaluate a child 3 years or older to determine eligibility for school-based services. PAVE provides information about how to make a formal written request for an educational evaluation: Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Preschool children have a right to be included

If eligible, students 3-21 can receive free services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) served by the local school district. PAVE provides guidance for families new to the process: Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), provides guidance specific to Early Childhood Special Education. Districts must consider how to include preschool students with non-disabled peers. General education classrooms are considered the Least Restrictive Environment, and LRE is a primary guiding principle of the IDEA.

There are 14 IEP eligibility categories

Students 3-21 may be eligible for IEP services if they meet criteria in a category defined by federal and state regulations. A PAVE article provides more detail about each of these categories and describes the evaluation process: Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.

Below is a list of IEP eligibility categories. The Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A-01035) lists state criteria for each category.

Developmental Delay is an eligibility category for Washington students through age 9. At that point, an evaluation would need to show eligibility in one of the other 13 categories for the student to continue receiving IEP services.

Please note that a medical diagnosis is not required for a school district to determine eligibility, which is based on three criteria:

  1. a disability is present
  2. a student’s learning is significantly impacted, and
  3. services are necessary to help the child access appropriate learning.

All three prongs must be present for a student to be eligible for an IEP in one or more of these disability categories:

  • Autism
  • Emotional Disturbance (In Wash., Emotional Behavioral Disability)
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Speech/Language Impairment
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Deafness
  • Deaf blindness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-9 in Wash.)

Improving Services for All Young Children with Disabilities

The Department of Children Youth and Families, State Interagency Coordinating Council (SICC) ensures interagency coordination and supports the ongoing development of quality statewide services for young children and their families. The Council advises, advocates, and collaborates on state, local and individual levels to maximize each child’s unique potential and ability to participate in society. The Council works to improve the quality of life for children who experience disability and promotes and supports family involvement and family-centered services. If you are interested in becoming a member of the SICC, attending a public meeting, and/or learning more, go to DCYF State Interagency Coordinating Council

PAVE is here to help!

Parent Training and Information (PTI)is federally funded to provide assistance for family caregivers, youth, and professionals. We know educational systems use a lot of complicated words and follow regulated procedures that can feel confusing. We do our best to help school-and-family teams work together so students with disabilities can access their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Learn more about PTI and click Get Help to receive individualized assistance.

Step-By-Step Guide to Requesting Accommodations on SAT and ACT Exams

The transition from high school to college can be a daunting experience for any teenager. Part of the transition process is preparing for and taking the entrance exams for college. If the student is receiving accommodations in school, they may qualify to receive special accommodations while taking a college entrance exam.

The ACT and College Board Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) do not approve accommodations for all college entrance exams. Contact your school, college, or testing center for the CLEP and ACCUPLACER tests. Students with documented disabilities may request accommodations on PSAT-related assessments with the help of their school counselor.

Differences Between SAT and ACT Exams

Most universities accept both SAT and ACT and the length of both tests is approximately the same.  ACT has more questions in that same period, so fast workers may prefer it.  However, the best one for a student is the one they feel best about, so trying sections of both before choosing which one to study for is recommended by most test prep professionals. Both ACT and SAT have free practice sections available.

SATACT
Reading (65 min, 52 Questions)Reading (35 min, 35 Questions)
Writing (35 min, 44 Questions)English (45 min, 75 Questions)
Math (80 min, 58 Questions)Math (60 min, 60 Questions)
Optional essay (50 min)Science (35 min, 40 Questions)
Scored 400-1600Optional essay (30 min)
Scored 1-36

A student must have approval from the College Board SSD (for the SAT) or ACT to use accommodations on an exam. If a student uses extended test time or other accommodations without prior approval, their test results will be invalid.

The process of requesting accommodations varies depending on the exam. These are the steps to request accommodations on SAT and ACT college entrance exams:

Step 1: Document the need for accommodations.

The student must have a documented disability. Documentation can be a current psycho-educational evaluation or a report from a doctor. The type of documentation depends on the student’s circumstances. The disability must impact the student’s ability to participate in the college entrance exams. If the student is requesting a specific accommodation, documentation should demonstrate the difficulty the student has performing the related task. The College Board provides a disability documentation guideline and accommodation documentation guideline, as does the ACT. Doctor notes and Individualized Education Program (IEPs) or 504 plans may not be enough to validate a request for accommodations; you must provide supporting information, such as test scores. 

While students typically only receive accommodations if they have a documented disability, some (very few) students who have a temporary disability or special healthcare need can also be eligible. The request is different in these circumstances for those who wish to take the SAT exam and students are often urged to reregister for a date after they have healed. If the student cannot postpone their test, the request form for temporary assistance must be completed by a school official, student (if over 18) or parent, doctor, and teacher. Then, the form must be faxed or mailed to the College Board for processing.

Step 2: Allow plenty of time for processing.

It takes time to apply for accommodations, including a processing period of up to seven weeks after all required documentation has been submitted to the College Board SSD or ACT. If they request additional documentation, or if a request is resubmitted, approval can take an additional seven weeks. Start as early as possible before the exam date to allow enough time for processing, responding to a request for more documentation, and additional processing time. If the student will take the exam in the fall, they should begin the process in the spring to allow sufficient time for processing.

Step 3: Identify appropriate accommodations.

If the student has a formal education plan, review the current plan, and note accommodations listed throughout, especially (but not only) those the student uses during assessments. Read through recent medical evaluations, prescriptions, and records to ensure all accommodations have been included in the formal education plan, if the student has one, or to locate appropriate accommodations recommended by medical professionals. You may recognize some of the Possible Accommodations for SAT and ACT Entrance Exams.

Some accommodations may only be provided during certain sections of the exam, depending on the specific accommodation requested. For example, a student with dyscalculia may receive extended time during the math section of the exam but not for any other subject.

Step 4: Submit the request for accommodations.

The easiest way to request SAT accommodations is to go through your student’s school. If you choose to go through the school, the school’s Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) Coordinator (Special Education Coordinator, Guidance/School Counselors, etc.) can go online to review the SAT Suite Accommodations and Supports Verification Checklist and submit the application. Having the coordinator submit the application will help streamline the process. Homeschooled students or those who choose not to go through the school may request accommodations on the SAT exam by printing the Student Eligibility Form and submitting all documentation by fax or postal mail.

Requesting accommodations for the ACT exam requires working with a school official who is a part of the IEP team. The accommodations requested should be similar to the accommodations currently being received in school and must be approved by ACT before the test. All requests, including appeals, must be submitted by the late registration deadline for the preferred test date. Homeschooled students may request accommodations on the ACT exam by creating an ACT account online and submitting the required documents electronically.

Step 5: Register for the college exam.

Once the student is approved for SAT accommodations, they will receive a Service for Students with Disability (SSD) number that must be included when registering for the test. The school’s SSD Coordinator should ensure all the correct accommodations are in place when it is time to take the college exam. Approved accommodations will remain in effect for one year after graduation from high school.

Additional Information

Starting School: When and How to Enroll a Student in School

A Brief Overview

  • Compulsory attendance begins at 8 years of age and continues until the age of 18 unless the student qualifies for certain exceptions.
  • Infants and toddlers receiving early intervention services may be eligible to start preschool as early as 3 years old to continue receiving specialized instruction and related services.
  • A student aged 4 years old by August 31 may be screened for Transition to Kindergarten (TK), a state program designed for students who need additional support to be successful in kindergarten the following year.
  • A child must have turned 5 years old by August 31 to enroll in kindergarten, and 6 years old to enroll in first grade.
  • When registering your student for school, contact the school to find out what documents are required in addition to those listed in this article.
  • Students with a condition that may require medication or treatment

Full Article

If your child has never enrolled in school, back to school season can be a confusing time. This article answers frequently asked questions about school entrance age, compulsory education, and the enrollment process.  Note that “enrollment” and “registration” are used interchangeably regarding the steps leading up to a student starting school and within the OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) website.

At what age are children required to attend school?

Federal law protects the rights of children and youth to receive a publicly funded education. This is called compulsory education, or compulsory attendance. The age at which a child must begin school varies by state. In Washington state, children must begin attending school full-time at the age of 8 and continue attending regularly until the age of 18 (RCW 28A.225.010).

There are some exceptions to compulsory attendance, including if a child is –

  • enrolled in a private school, extension program, or residential school operated by the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) or the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF).
  • enrolled in home-based instruction that meets State supervision requirements.
  • excused by the school district superintendent for physical or mental incapacity.
  • incarcerated in an adult correctional facility.
  • temporarily excused upon the request of the parents when the excused absences meet additional requirements under Washington state law (RCW 28A.225.010).

Compulsory attendance is required in Washington until the age of 18, unless the student is 16 years or older and meets additional criteria for emancipation, graduation, or certification (RCW 28A.225.010).

At what age can a student begin attending school?

Students with special needs or disabilities may qualify for early education programs. An infant or toddler with a disability or developmental delay receiving early intervention services may be eligible to start preschool between the ages of 3-5 to continue receiving specialized instruction and related services through the public school district until they reach the minimum enrollment age for kindergarten. Washington’s Transition to Kindergarten (TK) program screens 4-year-olds with a birthday by August 31st to identify those in need of additional preparation to be successful in kindergarten.

Parents may choose to enroll a child in kindergarten at 5 years old, if the birthday occurred before August 31st of the same year, but kindergarten is not required under compulsory education. Similarly, a child must be 6 years of age to enroll in first grade.

Families have the right to choose whether to enroll their students in school until the child turns 8 years old and compulsory attendance applies.

How do I enroll my student in school?

If this is the first time your child will attend this school, call the school and ask what you must bring with you to enroll your child and the best time to go to the school for enrollment. Consider that things will be busiest right before the school day starts, during lunch breaks, and as school is ending. Also find out if there is an on-site school nurse and the best time to reach that person.

A parent or legal guardian must go with the student to the school for registration with the required information and documents. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)’s Learning by Choice Guide, most schools require the following at a minimum:

  • Proof of age (e.g., birth certificate or passport).
  • Health history, including name, address, and phone number of child’s doctor and dentist.
  • Proof of residency (e.g., utility bill, tax statement).
  • Parent or guardian’s telephone numbers.
  • Child’s immunization records.

If your child has attended another school, also provide:

  • Withdrawal form or report card from the last school attended.
  • Expulsion statement.

Enrollment for Military-Connected Students

A Washington law passed in 2019 (HB 1210-S.SL, School Enrollment-Nonresident Children from Military Families) allows advance enrollment of children of active-duty service members with official military orders transferring or pending transfer into the state. This means that qualifying children must be conditionally enrolled in a specific school and program and registered for courses. The parent must provide proof of residence within fourteen days of the arrival date listed in the military orders before the school will finalize the enrollment. The address on the proof of residency may be a temporary on-base detailing facility; a purchased or leased residence, or a signed purchase and sale or lease agreement; or military housing, including privatized and off-base housing. The child will be conditionally enrolled and registered for courses.

Schools are responsible for the health and safety of students during all school-related activities. If a student has a condition that may require medication or treatment while at school, Washington state law (RCW 28A.210.320 and WAC 392-380) requires additional steps before the student may begin attending school. The parent or guardian must:

  1. Provide the school with a written prescription and/or treatment plan from a licensed health care provider,
  2. Provide the prescribed medication and/or equipment outlined in the treatment plan, and
  3. Create an Individualized Healthcare Plan with the school nurse.

Schools may develop their own forms, so contact your child’s intended school to get the correct forms and provide complete, accurate information.

Download How to Enroll a Student in School Handout

How to Enroll a Student in School Checklist To download the fillable form and get access to the clickable links, download the PDF

Additional Considerations for Military-Connected Students

Children with parents in the uniformed services may be covered by the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunities for Military Children, also known as MIC3, was created with the hope that students will not lose academic time during military-related relocation, obtain an appropriate placement, and be able to graduate on time. MIC3 provides uniform policy guidance for how public schools address common challenges military-connected students experience when relocating, including several issues related to enrollment. Learn more about how to resolve Compact-related issues with this MIC3 Step-by-Step Checklist.

Families who are new to Washington can learn more about navigating special education and related services in this article, Help for Military Families: Tips to Navigate Special Education Process in Washington State.

Additional Information

Movers, Shakers, and Troublemakers: How Technology Can Improve Mobility and Access for Children with Disabilities

A Brief Overview

  • Mobility (the ability to move around) is important for interacting with the world, developing social relationships, and participating in our community
  • Ableism is when people are treated unfairly because of their body or mind differences. This can make people feel ashamed. It can also make it hard for them to move around because places aren’t accessible. This means they have fewer chances to be mobile.
  • Studies show that when kids with disabilities have self-initiated mobility (can start moving on their own), it helps them grow, make friends, and take part in things. This is true no matter how they move around.
  • Many young children with disabilities lack access to mobility technologies such as wheelchairs or supportive walking devices
  • It is important to spread the word about the benefits of mobility technology, and some of the current barriers that limit access to mobility technologies for children with disabilities
  • We need to tell people about how mobility technology can help kids with disabilities. We need to talk about why it can be hard for families to get this technology and work on making it easier to access these tools.
  • There are many ways for families to try mobility devices for children. They can work with their therapy teams to access the technology they need.
  • This article was developed in partnership with PAVE by Heather A. Feldner, PT, PhD, PCS and Kathleen Q. Voss (ed.),  University of Washington CREATE  (Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technology and Experiences)

Connecting to the World through Mobility

I want to invite you to take 30 seconds and think back to when you were a kid. What did you love to do?​ Why did you love it? How did this contribute to who you were, and how see yourself now? For me, it was playing the 80’s childhood game ‘ghosts in the graveyard’ around my neighborhood in the summer. Ghosts in the graveyard combines tag and hide-and-seek…in the dark. What could go wrong?!  I was with my friends, people I trusted. I was in my own yard, and the yards of my neighborhood. Places I knew well. Sure, there was a bit of risk, or what we thought to be risk in our young minds, but I loved to do it. I felt free and safe at the same time.​

So, what did you think of? Maybe for some of you, it was reading. For others, playing with friends at a playground, or in the sand and water at the beach. Maybe you were a dancer, or an artist. Perhaps you were on a sports team of some sort. Maybe it was none of these things. And regardless of how or where, I imagine we all got into some troublemaking. So, what made it all possible? I would guess that whatever it was, it was possible because of your ability to connect to the world, and objects, and people through mobility. ​

Ableism, Troublemaking, and the Importance of Mobility

Though we may have our own special idea of what mobility means, there’s also likely a lot of common ground, too. Let’s start with how the dictionary defines mobility and locomotion. According to Merriam-Webster, locomotion is defined as ‘the act or power of moving from place to place’. For mobility, we find ‘the ability or capacity to move; the ability to change one’s social or socioeconomic position in a community and especially to improve it.’ What stands out to you when you see these definitions? What is or isn’t included?

Note the definitions don’t talk about how people move or who’s moving. But what they do highlight is that mobility is powerful and social. We know society values some types of movement, like walking, more than others. For those with disabilities, this value judgement can lead to harm. This is ableism at work. It is thinking that being normal means being able-bodied. Ableism leads to unfair treatment of those who function differently. This connects to other ‘isms’ and makes things even harder. Even though there are tools like wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, and gait trainers to help with mobility, ableism affects how we see and value this technology in society. Because of this, people with disabilities wait longer for access, pay more, and have fewer choices. Just exploring these options can cause people to feel shame. Even then, many places are still inaccessible. Our mobility isn’t just about getting from one place to another. It helps us connect with others, make friends, explore new things, and have fun. When the mobility of disabled people is limited, it is an equity issue. For children with disabilities, ableism can take away their chance to be troublemakers.

Parents know that toddlers can be a handful. They touch everything, make messes, and often try to run away. But what if a toddler has a physical disability? How can we help them learn about their bodies and the world around them, especially when they might need help or special equipment to move around? Research shows that when kids start moving on their own, they learn a lot. They get better at understanding space, thinking, talking, and moving. Their relationships with parents and caregivers also improve. They show more emotions and hear more language from adults. These benefits happen for all kids, whether they crawl, use a baby walker, or drive a mobility device.

When kids can’t move on their own, either by using their muscles or with technology, they may have trouble starting to play and interacting with others. They may also have slower development in thinking, seeing shapes, and body awareness. Caregivers may not notice when the child tries to move or talk. Kids with disabilities are often described as quieter and better behaved than other kids. They are often placed near the fun but are not always part of the fun. This is not the child’s fault. It’s because our surroundings, technology, and ways of doing things don’t reflect how important it is for very young children with disabilities to move on their own. Parents and disabilities rights groups have worked hard to make schools more inclusive. But we need to do more to see how technology and design can help kids move and truly take part in things. As a pediatric physical therapist for kids and a technology researcher, my goal is to help kids with disabilities have more chances to be movers, shakers, and troublemakers.

Spreading the Word about the Importance of Self-Initiated Mobility

I work at the University of Washington as a researcher and associate director of an accessibility center called CREATE- The Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technology and Experiences. Our center has researchers from many different fields. We all focus on accessibility in different ways. My focus is on helping kids with disabilities access mobility technology. Our team works with children ages 1-5 who have trouble moving because of conditions like cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, spinal muscle atrophy, and genetic conditions. Some kids will learn to walk. But it’s important for them to have other ways to move around while they practice. Sometimes people think using mobility technology keeps children from developing motor skills like walking. This isn’t true. Research shows that using technology can even help kids learn to walk and do other things better! Our work at CREATE is to learn more about how kids use technology to move and to explore new technology together with the disabled community. We want to share how mobility technology helps kids grow and interact with their world.

Trying Out or Obtaining Mobility Technology

  • We know it’s important for kids with disabilities to be able to move around on their own. Mobility technology can help them do that. If families want to try out or get this technology, how can they start? Here are some important things to think about:
  • Talk with your therapy team to see if they have any devices at the clinic that you can try or borrow
  • If they do not have any devices you can try, ask to be put in touch with a local durable medical equipment supplier. In Washington, you can also contact NuMotion, Bellevue Healthcare, or Olympic Pharmacy and Healthcare.
  • Regional equipment lending libraries may mobility technology for children. It is always worth asking. In Washington, Bridge Disability Ministries has locations in Tukwila and Bellevue, The Washington Technical Assistance Program (WATAP) ships mobility technology accessories (not devices themselves) across the state. There are many other libraries throughout the state that are grouped together on the Northwest Access Fund loan program website.
  • When buying mobility technology, there are many things to consider. Think about the size and weight of the device and your transportation needs. Also think about how your home is set up and how your child will grow. An equipment clinic at a local hospital or therapy center can help. They have staff that can help you find the best equipment for your child as they grow.
  • Some people buy mobility technology themselves, but most get it through public or private funding. To get funding, you need a letter from a doctor saying your child needs the equipment. The letter must explain why the equipment is a good match for your child’s needs, how much it costs, and how it will be used at home and in the community. Staff at equipment clinics usually write the letter and send it to the doctor to sign. Then they send it to the funding agency.
  • It can take 3-12 months to get approved for mobility technology, depending on how you’re paying for it. Sometimes the first request is denied, and you have to appeal. It’s important for you and your equipment clinic team to keep fighting for your child’s needs.
  • You can also make your own mobility technology through the University of Washington Go Baby Go! program. This program changes battery-powered toy cars so kids with disabilities can use them. The cars are changed with a switch and special seats to help kids move around on their own. The program is for young kids from 9 months to 5 years old and is free for families.

Families can learn more about mobility technology by taking part in research. This can help them find out what types of technology are available and get practice using it. For example, at CREATE, we have done studies on how kids with Down syndrome move and explore, how young kids learn to use powered mobility devices, and how families use adapted toy cars. Taking part in research is always up to the family. Parents must give permission for their kids to join. Research studies are usually advertised on university websites and at therapy clinics. You can also join a research registry or ask your therapy team for help finding local researchers. Research centers like CREATE partner with people with disabilities and families to find out what research is most important to them.

In conclusion, being able to move around on your own is a basic human right. It is also really important for kids’ development and social life, no matter how they do it! Mobility technology can help children with disabilities, but it can be hard for families to get. Trying out equipment through therapy providers or lending libraries, buying equipment, or taking part in research can all help your child experience the benefits of mobility technology. These benefits can help your child grow, make friends, and take part in things.

References and Additional Resources:

Sabet, A., Feldner, H., Tucker, J., Logan, S. W., & Galloway, J. C. (2022). ON time mobility: Advocating for mobility equity. Pediatric Physical Therapy, 34(4), 546-550.

Feldner, H. A., Logan, S. W., & Galloway, J. C. (2016). Why the time is right for a radical paradigm shift in early powered mobility: the role of powered mobility technology devices, policy and stakeholders. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 11(2), 89-102.

UNICEF Assistive Products and Inclusive Supplies

Family Information Guide to Assistive Technology

Oregon Family to Family Health Information Center – Wheelchairs for Children and Youth. Safe and Practical Options that Support Dignity and Community Inclusion

Washington State Department of Social and Health Services – Assistive Technology Services

Center for Research and Education on Accessible Technology and Experiences CREATE

Back To School Checklist!

Late summer is the time to gather school supplies, find out what time the school bus will pick up and drop off, and prepare to find new classrooms and meet new teachers. Parents of students with disabilities have some additional things to check off the list to be ready for the year ahead. As August is National Immunization Month, we are adding updated immunizations and flu and covid boosters to the reminders. These are fully covered medical expenses whether you have insurance or not and can go a long way to keeping your child and your family healthy as we move into the fall and winter months. There are multiple events across our state where families can go to for immunizations.  

Super important: As school begins, make sure you know what’s included in your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), Section 504 Plan, and/or Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). For more, see PAVE’s article: Tips to Help Parents Plan for the Upcoming School Year

If you are new to Washington State, perhaps because of military service, you also may want to review some basic information about how education and special education are structured and delivered here. PAVE provides an article: Help for Military Families: Tips to Navigate Special Education Process in Washington State. 

Here’s a checklist to help you get organized:

  1. Create a one-pager about your child to share with school staff
    • Include a picture
    • List child’s talents and strengths—your bragging points
    • Describe behavioral strategies that motivate your child
    • Mention any needs related to allergy, diet, or sensory
    • Highlight important accommodations, interventions, and supports from the 504 Plan, IEP, or BIP
  2. Make a list of questions for your next meeting to discuss the IEP, BIP, or 504 Plan
    • Do you understand the goals and what skills your child is working on?
    • Do the present levels of performance match your child’s current development?
    • Do accommodations and modifications sound likely to work?
    • Do you understand the target and replacement behaviors being tracked and taught by a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)?
    • Will the child’s transportation needs be met?
  3. Mark your calendar for about a week before school starts to visit school and/or send an email to teachers, the IEP case manager, and/or your child’s counselor
    • Share the one-pager you built!
    • Ask school staff how they prefer to communicate—email, phone, a notebook sent back and forth between home and school?
    • Get clear about what you want and need, and collaborate to arrange a communication plan that will work for everyone
    • A communication plan between home and school can be listed as an accommodation on an IEP or 504 Plan; plan to ask for your communication plan to be written into the document at the next formal meeting
  4. Design a communication log book
    • Can be a physical or digital notebook
    • Plan to write notes every time you speak with someone about your child’s needs or services. Include the date, the person’s full name and title, and information about the discussion
    • Log every communication, whether it happens in the hallway, on the phone, through text, via email, or something else
    • After every communication, plan to send an email thanking the person for their input and reviewing what was discussed and any promised actions—now that conversation is “in writing”
    • Print emails to include in your physical log book or copy/paste to include in a digital file
    • Having everything in writing will help you confirm what did/didn’t happen as promised: “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.”
  5. Consider if you want to request more information about the credentials of teachers or providers working with your child. Here are some things you can ask about:
    • Who is providing which services and supports?
    • Who is designing the specially designed instruction (SDI)? (SDI helps a child make progress toward IEP goals)
    • What training did these staff receive, or are there training needs for the district to consider?
  6. Ask  the special education teacher or 504 case manager how you can share information about your child, such as a one-pager, with school team members. This includes paraprofessionals or aids and other members of the school team.
    • Parents have important information that benefit all school team members. Ask who has access to your child’s IEP or 504 Plan and how you can support ensuring team members receive information
  7. Have thank you notes ready to write and share!
    • Keep in mind that showing someone you appreciate their efforts can reinforce good work
  8. Celebrate your child’s return to school
    • Do the bus dance on the first morning back to school!
    • Be ready to welcome your child home with love and encouragement. You can ask questions and/or read notes from your child’s teachers that help your loved one reflect on their day and share about the new friends and helpers they met at school

Below is an infographic of the above information.

Tip! you can click on the image and access an accessible PDF to print and keep handy.

Back to School Checklist click to find the accessible PDF

Click to access an accessible PDF of the infographic above

LGBTQ+ and Disability Rights in School

A Brief Overview

  • Youth and young adults with disabilities may also have diverse sexualities and gender identities.
  • Students can experience discrimination based on disability, and face discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
  • LGBTQ+ is an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or sometimes questioning), and others. The “plus” represents other gender identities including pansexual and Two-Spirit.
  • LGBTQ identities are NOT disabilities, but students with disabilities
  • may also be LGBTQ+.
  • LGBTQ+ youth with disabilities report high rates of harassment and are more likely to be bullied or harassed than students without disabilities.
  • Race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are all protected classes under Washington law.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff help families understand and navigate service systems for children 0-26. Click Get Help on the PAVE website or call 800-572-7368.

Full Article

LGBTQ+ is an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or sometimes questioning), and others. The “plus” represents other gender identities including pansexual and Two-Spirit.

Youth and young adults with disabilities may also have diverse sexualities and gender identities. LGBTQ+ identities are NOT disabilities, but students with disabilities may also be LGBTQ+. The prevalence of disability among LGBQT+ youth is not clear, but research is emerging. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation 2018 LGBTQ+ Youth Report surveyed over 12,000 LGBTQ+ youth aged 13-17 from across the United States. One in seven (15%) LGBTQ+ youth said they had a disability. A 2020 Trevor Project survey found that 5% of LGBTQ+ reported having deafness or a hearing disability, whereas a 2021 Trevor Project survey found that 5% of LGBTQ+ youth were diagnosed with autism.

Discrimination often refers to a person or a group of people being treated differently because they belong to a protected class. According to the HRC, “For LGBTQ+ youth with a disability, stigma associated with their intersecting identities places them at even more risk for bullying and harassment. More than one-third (36%) of disabled LGBTQ+ students say they have been bullied or harassed in school because of their disability, while three in ten (30%) say they have felt unsafe at school because of their disability.”

Washington is one of only 19 states that explicitly protects LGBTQ+ students in public schools from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Washington also has laws to protect students from discrimination based on disability.

Effective January 31, 2020, all districts in Washington must have a policy and procedure that includes all elements of Washington Association School Board Directors Association (WSSDA) model policy for gender inclusive schools and procedure (numbered 3211 and 3211P, respectively). Gender-inclusive schools benefit all students, help to equalize student experiences and outcomes; and prioritize student health, safety, and wellbeing.

The HRC, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Education Association produced a Guide for Educators and Parents/Guardians on Supporting LGBTQ Students with an IEP or 504 Plan. This guide emphasizes that “Ideally, students should be allowed access to needed resources, services, restrooms and locker rooms without such access being written into a Section 504 Plan or IEP, but there are times when including specific provisions about equal access may be necessary to ensure that students are able to access school programs and facilities and benefit from classroom instruction.”

If you are concerned about your child’s rights in school:

Additional Resources:

Resources for LGBTQ+ People Living with Disabilities:

Infant Early Childhood Mental Health

A Brief Overview

  • Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) is a term that describes how young children develop socially and emotionally. They learn about their emotions form close and secure relationships with their caregivers and family members. They learn and explore the environment – all in the context of family, community, and culture.
  • Families concerned about a child’s development can call the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588, with support in multiple languages. Parents can complete a developmental screening online for free at Parent Help 123.
  • PAVE provides an article for next steps after age 3: What’s Next when Early Childhood Services End at Age 3? Another PAVE article for families new to special education: Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff help families understand and navigate service systems for children 0-26. Click Get Help on the PAVE website or call 800-572-7368.
  • Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) helps young children with disabilities or delays to learn and supports their unique development.

Full Article

New parents may struggle to know whether their child’s emotional development is on track. They may have a feeling that a milestone is missed, or they may observe siblings or the emotional well-being of other children and notice their child is developing differently. Sometimes a parent just needs reassurance. Other times, a child may have a developmental delay or a disability. In those cases, early support, including Infant Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) can be critical to a child’s lifelong learning and development.

IECMH is a term that describes how very young children develop socially and emotionally. They form relationships with other people. They learn about their emotions and how to control them. This happens in the settings of their family, community, and culture. (Zero to Three, Basics of Early Childhood Mental Health, 2017).

According to Best Starts for Kids, relationships are at the heart of human development and thriving for infants, toddlers, and young children. Relationships with parents and caregivers give very young children the social and emotional foundations they need to learn and thrive.

The Washington Health Care Authority reports around 1 in 6 young children has a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental condition (Cree et al., 2018). These conditions may be treated with infant early childhood mental health (IECMH) services.

Services work to improve the quality of the child’s relationship with parents or caregivers. They can:

  • Help the distress of the mental health concern.
  • Support the return to healthy development and behavior.

When families receive Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) services for a child, the child is tested as part of an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).

The evaluation looks at the child’s ability to:

  • Identify and understand their own feelings;
  • Accurately notice and understand other people’s emotional states.
  • Manage strong emotions in a positive way.
  • Control their behavior.
  • Develop empathy (understand how people feel based on the child’s own experience)
  • Make and support relationships.

The evaluation may show the child is not developing well in some of these areas.  IECMH services may help.

Some examples of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health services include:

  • Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation
  • Parent training
  • Childcare provider training
  • Group training
  • Parent Behavioral Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Infant/Child – Parent Psychotherapy
  • Play therapy

If you are concerned about a child’s development:

  • To learn about typical development, read the birth-to-6 pre-screening chart in English or Spanish
  • Please Ask is a three-minute video that shows the importance of referring infants and toddlers for early intervention. ESIT is a part if the Department of Children, Youth and Families
  • Families can call the ESIT local lead agency: Local Lead Agencies by County
  • Family Health Hotline: 1-800-322-2588. This statewide, toll-free number offers help in English, Spanish, and other languages.
  • Early Learning Transition: When Birth-3 Services End

More Resources:

Traumatic Brain Injury in Youth

A Brief Overview

  • A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an injury that affects how the brain works.
  • Approximately 1.7 million people receive traumatic brain injuries every year. Of children 0-19 years old, TBI results in 631,146 trips to the emergency room annually, 35,994 hospitalizations, and nearly 6,169 deaths.
  • Children have the highest rate of emergency department visits for traumatic brain (TBI) injury of all age groups. TBI affects children differently than adults.
  • Although TBI is quite common, many medical and education professionals may not realize that some difficulties can be caused by a childhood TBI. Often, students with TBI are thought to have a learning disability, emotional disturbance, or an intellectual disability. As a result, they may not receive the type of educational help and support really needed.
  • Students with TBI who are not eligible for special education might be eligible for a Section 504 plan.
  • TBI is a category of eligibility for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Washington State Administrative Code (WAC)
  • Washington law requires evaluation referrals in writing. The state provides a form for referrals, downloadable from a website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. The person making the referral can use the form or any other format for their written request.
  • PAVE provides a Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Full Article

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an injury that affects how the brain works. TBI can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. The exact definition of TBI, according to special education law, is referenced later. This injury can change how the person thinks, behaves, and moves. A traumatic brain injury can also change how a student learns and behaves in school. The term TBI is used for head injuries that can cause changes in one or more areas, such as:

  • thinking and reasoning,
  • understanding words,
  • remembering things,
  • paying attention,
  • solving problems,
  • thinking abstractly,
  • talking,
  • behaving,
  • walking and other physical activities,
  • seeing and/or hearing, and
  • learning.

The term TBI is not used for a person who is born with a brain injury or for brain injuries that happen during birth.

How is TBI Defined?

The definition of TBI below comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that guides how schools provide special education and related services to children and youth with disabilities.

IDEA’s Definition of TBI

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines traumatic brain injury as

“…an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a student’s educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psycho-social behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.” [34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.8(c)(12)]

Washington State’s Definition of TBI

“Traumatic brain injury means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a student’s educational performance. Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. Traumatic brain injury does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.” (WAC 392-172A-01035)

What Are the Signs of Traumatic Brain Injury?

The signs of brain injury can be quite different depending on where the brain is injured and how severely. Students with TBI may have one or more difficulties, including:

Physical disabilities: Individuals with TBI may have problems speaking, seeing, hearing, and using their other senses. They may have headaches and feel tired a lot. They may also have trouble with skills such as writing or drawing. Their muscles may suddenly contract or tighten (this is called spasticity). They may also have seizures. Their balance and walking may also be affected. They may be partly or completely paralyzed on one side of the body, or both sides.

Difficulties with thinking: Because the brain has been injured, it is common that the person’s ability to use the brain changes. For example, students with TBI may have trouble with short-term memory (being able to remember something from one minute to the next, like what the teacher just said). They may also have trouble with their long-term memory (being able to remember information from a while ago, like facts learned last month). People with TBI may have trouble concentrating and only be able to focus their attention for a brief time. They may think slowly. They may have trouble talking and listening to others. They may also have difficulty with reading and writing, planning, understanding the order in which events happen (called sequencing), and judgment.

Social, behavioral, or emotional problemsThese difficulties may include sudden changes in mood, anxiety, and depression. Students with TBI may have trouble relating to others. They may be restless and may laugh or cry a lot. They may not have much motivation or much control over their emotions.

A student with TBI may not have all the above difficulties. Brain injuries can range from mild to severe, and so can the changes that result from the injury. This means that it is hard to predict how an individual will recover from the injury. Early and ongoing help can make an enormous difference in how the student recovers. This help can include physical or occupational therapy, counseling, and special education.

It is also important to know that, as children and youth grow and develop, parents and teachers may notice new problems. This is because, as young people grow, they are expected to use their brain in new and different ways. The damage to the brain from the earlier injury can make it hard for them to learn new skills that come with getting older. Sometimes families and teachers may not even realize that the student’s difficulty comes from the earlier injury.

How to Access Support

If a student is having a tough time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education. A student is protected in their right to be evaluated by the Child Find Mandate, which is part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). if they do have a disability and, because of the disability, need special services under IDEA. These services can include:

Early Supports for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT): A system of family centered services to support infants and toddlers with disabilities (before their 3rd birthday).

Special education and related services: Services available through the public school system for school-aged children and youth, including preschoolers (ages 3-21). It is important to remember that the IEP is intended to be flexible. It can be changed as the family, school, and the student learns more about what support and services are needed at school.

If the student is not eligible for special education, a Section 504 Plan may help. Under Section 504, students with disabilities can access the accommodations, aids, and services they need to access and benefit from education. It also protects students from discrimination based on disability.

When students with TBI return to school, their educational and emotional needs are often quite different than before the injury. Their disability has happened suddenly and traumatically. They can often remember how they were before the brain injury. This can bring on many emotional and social changes which may result in mental and/or behavioral health needs. The student’s family, friends, and teachers also recall what the student was like before the injury. These and other people in the student’s life may have trouble changing or adjusting their expectations of the student. Therefore, it is important to plan carefully for the return to school.

Tips for Families and Caregivers

  • Learn about TBI. The more you know, the more you can help yourself and your student.
  • Work with the medical team to understand your loved one’s injury and treatment plan. Ask questions. Share what you know or think. Make suggestions.
  • Keep track of your loved one’s treatment. A 3-ring binder or a box can help you store this history. As your youth recovers, you may meet with many doctors, nurses, and others. Write down what they say. Put any paperwork they give you in the notebook or place it in a box.
  • Plan for your student’s return to school after the injury. Contact the school. Ask the principal about an evaluation for special education or a Section 504 plan. You may also consider asking the medical team to share information with the school.
  • Talk to other families whose loved ones have TBI.
  • Stay connected with your student’s teacher. Tell the teacher about how your student is doing at home. Ask how your student is doing in school.
  • Sometimes students who do not qualify for the IEP will qualify for accommodations and other support through a Section 504 Plan. PAVE has an article about Section 504, which provides an individual with protections throughout the lifespan.
  • Protections against bullying and discriminatory discipline are aspects of Section 504. Watch PAVE’s video, Behavioral Health and School: Key Information for Families.

Help from PAVE

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team provides 1:1 support and additional resources. Click Get Help or Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

For information, help during a crisis, emotional support, and referrals:  

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK): After July 16, 2022, call 988.
  • Text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
  • TeenLink (1-866-833-6546; 6pm-10pm PST)
  • Seattle Children’s Hospital has a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is free for families statewide.

Further information on TBI:  

Family Support

  • PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center provides technical assistance to families navigating health systems related to disability. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368 for individualized assistance. Family Voices of Washington provides further information and resources.
  • Department of Health and Human Services (DSHS) has a link to Washington TBI Support Groups.
  • Brain Injury Association of America works to create a better future through brain injury prevention, research, education, and advocacy.
  • Brain Injury Alliance of Washington is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people who have sustained a brain injury and their families by providing services such as information resources, legislative advocacy, public awareness campaigns, and support groups.

Myth and Misunderstanding in Special Education

A Brief Overview

  • Everyone has moments when they hear something and pause to wonder, Is that true? This article and its companion videos describe some special education topics that may be misunderstood. Included is an explanation of what is fact.
  • Topics relate to special education eligibility, placement, support personnel, bullying, student discipline, and more.
  • Read on to see if there are things you haven’t quite understood about your student’s rights or educational services. PAVE hopes to empower families with information to make sure students with disabilities have their best chance for an appropriate and meaningful education.
  • The final myth described in this article is that PAVE provides advocacy on behalf of families—we don’t! But we can help you learn to be your child’s most important advocate. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 assistance.

Full Article

Everyone has moments when they hear something and pause to wonder, Is that true?

Parents/caregivers in meetings with their child’s school can feel particularly confused when something doesn’t sound right. They might wonder whether it’s appropriate to question school authorities. They might not understand all the words being spoken. Fear of not knowing something can make it uncomfortable to speak up.

At PAVE, we encourage families to ask questions and make sure they understand the words school staff use. Ask for important answers in writing, and plan to research explanations that are confusing.

For example, if you ask for something and the school says no because of a law or policy, ask for a written copy of the relevant parts of that law or policy. Try to understand the school’s reason for saying no. Write down what you understand and send a reflective email to school staff to make sure you understand their position correctly.

Having everything in writing is important, especially if filing a complaint is a possible next step.

This article describes myths and misunderstandings some people might experience when navigating school-based services for students with disabilities. These topics apply to students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), students with Section 504 Plans, and students with possible disability conditions impacting their educational access.

Parent Participation

MYTH: The school must hold a meeting without a parent if the parent is unavailable before an annual renewal deadline because the student’s IEP, 504 Plan, or eligibility will expire or lapse.
FACT: Parent participation is a higher priority than deadlines. Schools are required to accommodate parents/caregivers to ensure their attendance and participation at meetings where their child’s special education services are discussed. Those rights are affirmed in a court decision from 2013: Doug C. Versus Hawaii. If a meeting is delayed because a family member is temporarily unavailable because of illness, work, travel, or something else, services continue uninterrupted until the meeting. PAVE provies an article: Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.

Evaluation

MYTH: The school is not required to evaluate a student who gets passing grades.
FACT: If there is a known or suspected disability condition that may be significantly impacting a student’s access to any part of their education—academic, social-emotional, behavioral, or something else—then the school district is responsible under Child Find to evaluate the student to determine eligibility for services and support. Child Find is an aspect of federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

MYTH: Section 504 doesn’t apply for a student without a plan or program.
FACT: Section 504, which is part of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, includes protections for students with suspected or known disability conditions that warrant evaluation. For example, if a student consistently misses school for reasons that may be connected to disability, the school may be accountable under the civil rights protections of Section 504 if an evaluation referral isn’t initiated.

MYTH: Section 504 eligibility does not involve an evaluation.
FACT: An evaluation process is required to determine whether a student has a disability condition impacting a major life activity. That evaluation process may include a review of grades, test scores, attendance, health room visits, parent and student input, teacher observations, medical or psychological evaluations, special education data, medical information, and more. If the student meets criteria, evaluation documents are used to support the design of accommodations and other individualized supports to ensure equity. The state provides a family-friendly handout, downloadable in multiple languages, to describe 504 eligibility, evaluation process, plan development, and civil rights complaint options.

Medical Diagnosis

MYTH: A student cannot be identified as eligible for services under the autism category unless they have a medical diagnosis of autism.
FACT: If there is a suspected disability condition and reason to believe there is a significant educational impact, the school is responsible under Child Find to evaluate the student to determine eligibility for services. Schools have evaluation tools to determine characteristics of autism, its possible educational impacts, and student needs. Medical information might help an IEP team design interventions, but families are not required to share medical information with the school, a medical diagnosis is not required, and doctors may not “prescribe” an IEP.

Placement

MYTH: Special Education is a location within the school.
FACT: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place, and PAVE provides an article by that title to further explain a student’s right to educational services in general education—the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)—to the maximum extent appropriate.

MYTH: The school district is in charge of placement decisions.
FACT: The IEP team determines a student’s placement. If placement in general education, with support, is not meeting the student’s needs, the IEP team is responsible to locate or design a placement that best supports the student in accessing their Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Placement might be general education, a segregated classroom setting where special education services are provided, day treatment, alternative learning environment, residential, home-based, something else, or a combination of any of these options. Once an IEP team designs a placement, the school district has some leverage in choosing a location. For example, if an elementary-age student who is struggling to read needs individualized services from a reading specialist, the district might bus them to a school in another neighborhood where a specially trained teacher provides reading instruction in a smaller classroom. The district doesn’t have to offer every placement or service within every building, but it does need to serve the IEP as written by the IEP team.

MYTH: Preschool IEPs are not required to serve students in the Least Restrictive Environment to the maximum extent appropriate.
FACT: An IEP is required to serve a student with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), to the maximum extent appropriate, regardless of age or grade level. WAC 392-172A-02050 provides specific language about state requirements for LRE, including for preschool students.

Adult Aids at School

MYTH: A 1:1 creates a “restrictive environment” for a special education student.
FACT: Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) refers to placement. A helper is an aid, not a placement. Supplementary aids and services, including 1:1 support from an adult staff member, may support access to the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for some students. If having a 1:1 enables a student to appropriately access learning in the general education setting, then that support is provided to ensure FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). FAPE within LRE is required by federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

MYTH: Support personnel should regularly rotate in their roles to ensure a student does not become “dependent” on specific individuals or relationships.
FACT: Healthy interpersonal relationships enable humans of any age to feel safe and secure. Because of the way our brains work, a person doesn’t learn well when a fight/flight nervous system response is activated. Connecting to trusted adults and receiving consistent help from safe, supportive people enhances learning. PAVE provides a collection of articles about Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Washington State’s SEL Standards.

Section 504

MYTH: A 504 Plan is a watered down IEP.
FACT:
Section 504 is part of a civil rights law called the Rehabilitation Act, passed by the US Congress in 1973. The anti-discrimination protections of Section 504 apply to any person identified as having a disability condition that impacts their life in a significant way. Public agencies, including schools, are responsible to provide individualized accommodations and support to enable the person with a disability to access the service, program, or building in a way that affords them an equitable chance to benefit from the opportunity. A 504 Plan at school ensures the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Section 504 FAPE rights are upheld by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. PAVE provides a video series: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

MYTH: Section 504 doesn’t apply to a student with an IEP
FACT: Section 504 protections apply to students with IEPs and those with Section 504 Plans. The civil rights protections of Section 504 are threaded throughout the IEP, especially within sections that describe accommodations and modifications. Section 504 includes specific provisions to ensure students are not discriminated against within student discipline, by unmitigated bullying, or through denial of support that is needed for access to what non-disabled students access without support. All aspects of school are protected, including athletic events, field trips, enrichment activities, specialized learning academies, and more—everything the school is offering to all students. PAVE provides a comprehensive article about Section 504 and its protections for all students with disabilities.

MYTH: If the student has found ways to cope with their disability, they don’t need support.
FACT: Section 504 forbids schools from using “mitigating measures” to justify denial of evaluation or support. A mitigating measure is a coping mechanism—for example, a deaf student who reads lips or a student with an attention deficit whose symptoms are improved by medication. PAVE’s article about Section 504 provides more detail about mitigating measures.

Bullying

MYTH: The best way to help a student with a disability who is being bullied is to remove them from the bully’s classroom.
FACT: Section 504 protects a student with disabilities in their right to be protected from bullying. That means the school must stop the bullying and support the victim to feel safe again. Schools may not punish or disadvantage the victim. OCR says: “Any remedy should not burden the student who has been bullied.” PAVE provides a video: Bullying at School: Key Points for Families and Students with Disabilities.

MYTH: An informal conversation is the best way to address bullying.
FACT: The best way to hold a school accountable to stop bullying and support the victim is to file a formal HIB Complaint. HIB stands for Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying. Washington State’s 2019 Legislature passed a law that requires school districts to write formal HIB policies and appoint a HIB Compliance Officer to spread awareness and uphold the laws. Families can contact their district’s HIB Compliance Officer for support with a complaint and to ensure student civil rights are upheld.

IEP Goals and Process

MYTH: An IEP provides education to a student with a disability.
FACT: An IEP is not the student’s education. An IEP provides educational services to enable a student to access their education. IEP goals target areas of learning that need support in order for the student to move toward grade-level curriculum and learning standards. Included are services for academics, adaptive skills, social-emotional skills, behavior—all areas of learning that are impacted by disability.

MYTH: If an IEP team agrees to change something about a student’s services or placement, the team must submit that idea to the district for approval or denial.
FACT: An IEP team has decision-making authority. The team is required to include a person knowledgeable about district resources (WAC 392-172A-03095) so decisions about program and placement can be made at the meeting. If a required IEP team member is not in attendance, the family participant must sign consent for the absence. The family can request a new meeting because a key team member, such as a district representative, is missing. PAVE provides more information and a Sample Letter to Request an IEP meeting.

Behavior and Discipline

MYTH: A Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) is used to figure out how to discipline a student more effectively.
FACT: An FBA is an evaluation focused on behavior. It helps IEP teams understand the needs behind the student’s behavior. A Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) is built from the FBA to provide positive behavioral supports, teach new or missing skills, and reduce the need for discipline. PAVE provides a video about the FBA/BIP process.

MYTH: A school isn’t responsible to track exclusionary discipline if a parent agrees to take the child home and no paperwork is filed when the school calls to report a behavior incident.
FACT: “Off books” or informal suspensions count as exclusionary discipline for students with disabilities. If a student with a disability misses more than 10 cumulative days of school because of their behavior, the school is responsible to hold a manifestation determination meeting to decide whether the behaviors are directly connected to the disability and whether school staff are following the IEP and/or behavior plan. If services or placement need to change, this formal meeting is a key opportunity to make those changes. PAVE provides a video: Discipline and Disability Rights: What to do if Your Child is Being Sent Home.

Privacy

MYTH: A parent or provider who visits school to support or evaluate an individual student is violating the privacy rights of other students just by being there.
FACT: Federal laws protect private medical or educational records. Visiting a classroom or other school space should not expose student records for inappropriate viewing. The Department of Education provides a website page called Protecting Student Privacy to share resources and technical assistance on topics related to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The confidentiality of medical records is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Understanding HIPAA and FERPA can help parents /caregivers ask their school for documented explanations whenever these laws are cited as reasons for a request being denied.

Literacy

MYTH: Schools cannot provide individualized instruction in reading through a student’s IEP unless the student is diagnosed by a medical provider as having dyslexia.
FACT: No medical diagnosis is needed for a school to evaluate a student for any suspected disability that may impact access to learning and school. An educational evaluation might show that a student has a Specific Learning Disability in reading, with characteristics of dyslexia. When a disability that impacts education is identified through evaluation, the school is responsible to provide services to meet the identified needs and enable appropriate progress. PAVE provides an article: Dyslexia Screening and Interventions: State Requirements and Resources and a video: Supporting Literacy for Students with Learning Disabilities.

Graduation

MYTH: The school has to withhold credits for a student to receive services beyond a traditional senior year.
FACT: Credits do not need to be withheld, and a student doesn’t automatically earn a diploma by reaching the required number of credits. The IEP team determines the target graduation date for a student receiving services through an IEP and how transition programming for a student ages 18-21 might support learning and life planning. Receiving the required number of credits is only part of what a student needs to earn a diploma, and the IEP team individualizes a plan for the student with a disability to earn their diploma within the state’s options for graduation pathways. PAVE provides a Toolkit for life after high school planning.

Private School and Home School

MYTH: Public schools do not have to do anything for students with disabilities who are home schooled or enrolled in private schools by parent choice.
FACT: Child Find applies to all students with known or suspected disabilities who live within a district’s boundaries, including those who are home schooled or enrolled in private schools. Child Find means the public district is responsible to seek out and evaluate all students with known or suspected disabilities. If the student is found eligible for services, parents/caregivers can choose to enroll the student in the public school to receive special education services, even if the primary educational setting is a private or home placement. If the student is fully educated in the private setting, by parent choice, the private school provides equitable services.

Parent Support from PAVE

MYTH: PAVE gives the best advice and advocates on behalf of families.
FACT: PAVE does not give legal advice or provide advocacy. We support families in their work.  Staff from our Parent Training and Information (PTI) program provide information and resources to empower family advocates. Our goal is to ensure that family advocates have knowledge, understand options, and possess tools they need to work with schools to ensure that student rights are upheld and the needs of students with disabilities are met. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 assistance. Help us help you by reading your student’s educational documents and having those documents handy when you connect with us!

Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School

A Brief Overview

  • Special Education is provided through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a student with a qualifying disability. The first step is to determine eligibility through evaluation. This article describes that process and provides information and resources related to each eligibility category.
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is the “special” in special education. The evaluation determines whether SDI is needed to help a student overcome barriers of disability to appropriately access education. Learning to ask questions about SDI can help families participate in IEP development. To learn more, watch PAVE’s three-part video series: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504, and More.
  • Washington law requires evaluation referrals in writing. The state provides a form for referrals, downloadable from a website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. The person making the referral can use the form or any other format for their written request.
  • PAVE provides a Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Full Article

If a student is having a hard time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education. A child is protected in their right to be evaluated by the Child Find Mandate, which is part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

If eligible, the student receives an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Information collected during the evaluation is critical for building the IEP.

The school follows specific deadlines for an evaluation process. They have 25 school days to respond to the referral in writing. If they proceed with the evaluation they have 35 schools days to complete the assessment. For an eligible student, an IEP must be developed within 30 calendar days.

If parents disagree with the school’s evaluation, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) in writing. The school must either pay for the IEE or defend its evaluation and their IEE denial through Due Process. PAVE provides an article, Evaluations Part 2, with more information and a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Complaint options and family/student rights are described in the Procedural Safeguards, downloadable in multiple languages on the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

When a written referral is submitted to the school district: The IEP Services begin ASAP with the signed consent of the parent.  The school district has 30 calendar days to develop the IEP and 35 school days to complete the evaluation.

Evaluation is a 3-part process

Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. The school district’s evaluation asks 3 primary questions in each area of learning that is evaluated:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

If the answer to all three questions is Yes, the student qualifies for an IEP. After the evaluation is reviewed, the IEP team meets to talk about how to build a program to meet the needs that were identified in the evaluation. A summary of the most important findings is listed in the Adverse Educational Impact Statement on the IEP. Additional findings become part of the present levels statements, which are matched with IEP goal-setting and progress monitoring.

TIP: Read the Adverse Educational Impact Statement carefully to make sure it captures the most important concerns. The rest of the IEP is responsible to serve the needs identified in this statement. Families can request changes to this statement at IEP meetings. PAVE’s article, Advocacy Tips for Parents, provides information to help families prepare for and participate in meetings.

Don’t wait to evaluate because of provider wait lists

Depending on a student’s suspected areas of disability (see categories listed below), the district may need medical information. However, the school cannot delay the evaluation while requiring parents to get that medical information. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination, the district must pay for the outside evaluation. OSPI includes more detail about these requirements in a Technical Assistance Paper (TAP No. 5).

What areas can be evaluated?

When a parent signs consent for an evaluation, looking through the list of areas the school intends to evaluate is important to ensure that all concerning areas are included. Families can request additional areas to include in the evaluation, including a Functional Behavioral Assessment, for example.

Listed below are examples of skill areas that are commonly evaluated:

  • Functional: Functional skills are necessary for everyday living, and deficits might show up with tasks such as eating, handling common classroom tools or using the restroom.
  • Academic: Testing in specific academic areas can seek information about whether the student might have a Specific Learning Disability, such as dyslexia.
  • Cognitive: Testing to determine intelligence quotient (IQ) scores: verbal IQ, performance IQ, and full-scale IQ. These tests provide important data about a student’s strengths and weaknesses and can be important for IEP teams making decisions about how to adapt materials to ensure accessibility.
  • OT and Speech: Occupational Therapy and Speech/Language can be included as specific areas for evaluation, if there is reason to suspect that deficits are impacting education.
  • Social-Emotional Learning: Many evaluations collect data in an area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which can highlight disabilities related to behavior, social interactions, mental health or emotional regulation. It’s common for parents to fill out an at-home survey as part of an SEL evaluation process.
  • Autism Spectrum: Testing can look for disability related to autism spectrum issues, such as sensory processing or social difficulties. Testing in this area can be done regardless of whether there is a medical diagnosis.
  • Adaptive: How a student transitions from class-to-class or organizes materials are examples of adaptive skills that might impact learning.

TIP: Keep in mind that strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details. An IEP should always include statements about what the student does well, and the IEP team uses this information to reinforce and build on strengths throughout the program.

Eligibility Categories of Disability

Areas of evaluation are associated with 14 eligibility categories. These are broad categories, and sometimes there is discussion about which is the best fit to capture information about a student’s unique situation. Please note that there is no such thing as a “behavior IEP” or an “academic IEP.” After a student qualifies, the school is responsible to address all areas of need and design programming, services and a placement to meet those needs. An IEP is an individualized program, built to support a unique person and is not a cut-and-paste project based on the category of disability.

Below is a list of the 14 eligibility categories, including some information about places to get further information or specific resources.

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features of autism may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs. See PAVE’s article about Autism Spectrum Disorder for information and resources.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington State refers to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Please note that all eligibility categories are intended to identify the needs of students and are not intended to label children in ways that might contribute to stigma or discrimination. PAVE provides a Behavioral Health Toolkit for Navigating Crisis, School-Based Services, Medical Services, Family Support Networks, and More.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. The school might find, for example, that a student has a reading disability “with the characteristics of dyslexia,” although the school may not be willing to name the condition using formal diagnostic terms. Washington requires schools to screen primary school children for dyslexia. The Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) has information about state requirements. PAVE provides an article, Dyslexia Screening and Interventions: State Requirements and Resources, and a video,Supporting literacy: Text-to-Speech and IEP goal setting for students with learning disabilities.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document. Sometimes a Related Service is needed to assess a student because school staff do not have the expertise to properly understand a disability condition in order to make service recommendations. “Medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes” are written into federal law (IDEA Section 1432) as something schools provide at no cost to the family, if necessary as part of special education process.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction (how a student is able to produce sounds that are understood as words). Social communication deficits also might qualify a student for speech services. The Washington Speech Language Hearing Association (wslha.org) provides Consumer Information on its website and published a downloadable resource, Guidelines for Evaluation and Identification of Students with Communication Disorders.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category. Depending on their impairments, a student eligible in this category might receive services in a range of ways that overlap with other disability categories. Washington Sensory Disabilities Services (WSDS.wa.gov) may have information and resources to support families and schools in these complex situations.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category. Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services manages the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) that provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). DDA’s Informing Families website and newsletter is a place for information and resources. A child with a disability related to I/DD may be identified early and receive Birth-3 services through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). PAVE provides an Early Learning Toolkit.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education. PAVE provides an article about Related Services to help families understand services provided through school versus the medical system.  
  • Hearing Impairment: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance. The Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth (cdhy.wa.gov) provides information and resources for families and schools. Another place for information is Washington Sensory Disabilities Services (WSDS.wa.gov).
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category. The Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth (cdhy.wa.gov) provides information and resources for families and schools.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs. The Washington DeafBlind Program (deafblindprogram.wa.gov) provides information about seeking educational support and connecting with other families.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is an agency that provides youth and adult services for individuals who are blind or low vision. Other places to seek resources and information are Washington Sensory Disabilities Services (WSDS.wa.gov) and Outreach services from the Washington State School for the Blind (wssb.wa.gov/services/outreach).
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: The state provides resources related to TBI, including guidance about Returning to School After Traumatic Brain Injury. Another place for resources and support is the Brain Injury Alliance of WA.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-9): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 9. By age 10, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue. PAVE’s Early Learning Toolkit includes information to support families of babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and children in early elementary school.

What to do if you disagree

The IDEA requires schools to use “technically sound” instruments in evaluation. Generally, that means the tests are evidence-based as valid and reliable, and the school recruits qualified personnel to administer the tests. The IDEA is clear that a singular measure, such as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, does not meet the standard for an appropriate evaluation.

Parents can take action if they disagree with the way testing was done or the way it was interpreted.

Parents can always ask school staff to describe their decisions in writing, and parents have rights guaranteed by the IDEA to informally or formally dispute any decision made by the school. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) offers a variety of guidebooks that describe these options. In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides state-specific guidelines for dispute resolution.

A student may qualify for a Section 504 Plan, if not an IEP

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This Civil Rights law protects individuals with disabilities that severely impact “major life activities,” such as learning, breathing, walking, paying attention, making friends… The law is intentionally broad to capture a wide range of disability conditions and how they might impact a person’s life circumstances.

A student with an IEP has protections from Section 504; those protections are included in the IEP.

Sometimes students who don’t qualify for the IEP will qualify for accommodations and other support through a Section 504 Plan. PAVE has an article about Section 504, which provides an individual with protections throughout the lifespan.

Protections against bullying and discriminatory discipline are aspects of Section 504. Watch PAVE’s video, Behavioral Health and School: Key Information for Families.

Help from PAVE

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team provides 1:1 support and additional resources. Click Get Help or Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

Surrogate Parents Support Unaccompanied Students in Special Education

A Brief Overview

  • Parent participation in IEP process is a protected right for students with disabilities. If a student doesn’t have a family caregiver or legal guardian to advocate in their behalf, a surrogate parent is assigned to fill that role.
  • A surrogate parent is not paid and cannot be employed by the school system, or any other agency involved in the care or education of the child.
  • The provision for a surrogate parent is part of federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Section 300.519).

Full Article

If a student eligible for special education services does not have a family caregiver, adoptive parent, or other legal guardian fulfilling the role of parent, then a surrogate parent is assigned to ensure the student’s rights are protected. The surrogate parent fulfills the family caregiver role on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team and advocates to ensure the student’s needs are met.

A surrogate parent is an individual appointed by the public agency (usually a school district) responsible for the student’s special education services. Schools are responsible to assign a surrogate parent within 30 days after recognizing the need. Note that a child who is a ward of the state may be assigned a surrogate parent by the judge overseeing their case.

If a private individual, such as a neighbor or friend, has explicit written permission from the student’s parent or guardian to care for the student, a surrogate parent is not required.

A student 18-21 is responsible for their own educational decision-making unless they have a guardian to exercise their legal rights. A school district is responsible to assign a surrogate parent for a student declared legally incompetent or if an adult student with a disability asks for a surrogate parent.

A surrogate parent is required for a minor student when the parent cannot be identified or located or if parental rights have been terminated. A student’s parents are considered to be unknown if their identity cannot be determined from a thorough review of the student’s educational and other agency records.

A student’s parents are considered unavailable if they cannot be located through reasonable effort that includes documented telephone calls, letters, certified letters with return receipts, visits to the parents’ last known address, or if a court order has terminated parental rights. A parent is also considered unavailable if unable to participate in the student’s education due to distance or incarceration.

If a parent is too ill to participate at a meeting, either in person or by phone, that parent has the option of giving another individual written permission to act for them.

An uncooperative or uninvolved parent is not the same as an unavailable one.  A surrogate parent is not assigned because parents choose not to participate in their child’s education.

A child identified as an unaccompanied homeless youth by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is an example of a student who would be assigned a surrogate parent to support them within the special education system. Children with surrogate parents might live in foster homes, nursing homes, public or private group homes, state hospitals, or correctional facilities.

In some cases, a state agency has guardianship of a student with a disability: That student requires the assignment of a surrogate parent. 

Foster parents need to be formally appointed by the school as surrogate parents if they do not have legal guardianship. Relatives without formal kinship rights also can be designated as surrogate parents within the special education process.

A surrogate parent is not paid and cannot be employed by the school system, or any other agency involved in the care or education of the child. However, an unaccompanied homeless youth may be supported by appropriate staff from an emergency shelter, street outreach team, or other agency temporarily until a surrogate parent with no conflict of interest is appointed.

A surrogate parent must have knowledge and skills that ensure adequate representation of the student. A community volunteer, guardian ad litem, or other invested adult might serve as a surrogate parent. The surrogate parent must commit to understanding the student’s strengths and needs and how the educational system is structured to support the student’s services. Ideally, the surrogate parent lives near the student and is a match for providing culturally appropriate help in the student’s language.

The surrogate parent represents the student in all matters relating to special education identification, evaluation, and placement and works to ensure that the student receives a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) from their school-based services.

The provision for a surrogate parent is part of federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Section 300.519).

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) includes some downloadable resources about the surrogate parent in its Special Education Resource Library.

PAVE is here to help all caregivers, including surrogate parents. For direct assistance, click Get Help to complete an online Help Request Form.

IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

A Brief Overview

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that entitles children to special education services if disability significantly impacts access to education and a specially designed program is needed.
  • IDEA has been federal law since 1990, and key concepts are from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. PAVE provides an article and infographic about disability rights history.
  • A primary principle of the IDEA is the right to FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) for students eligible for special education services. FAPE rights are also protected by civil rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • PAVE provides a three-part video training with further information: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

Full Article

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that was passed in 1990 and has been amended. The IDEA provides children with qualifying disabilities, from birth to age 21, with the right to services designed to meet their unique, individual needs.

Eligible children ages 3-21 who receive services at school have a right to FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. In accordance with the IDEA, FAPE is provided when individualized services enable a student with a disability to make progress that is appropriate, in light of their circumstances.

Services are delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). A non-discriminatory evaluation and family participation on an IEP team are aspects of FAPE. Families have dispute resolution options that are described in the Procedural Safeguards.

IDEA requires FAPE to be provided in the Least Restrictive Environment to the maximum extent possible, which creates a responsibility for schools to serve students in the general education environment, with appropriately inclusive access to grade-level learning, whenever possible. Access to general education might be provided through an adapted curriculum, additional adult support, assistive technology, or something else. PAVE provides more information about Washington State’s work to improve inclusive practices.

Many of these concepts were part of IDEA’s predecessor law, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. That was the first United States law that required schools to provide special education services to all children with eligible disabilities. PAVE provides an article and infographic about disability rights history. The IDEA’s primary features are further detailed later in this article.

The IDEA drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures. Title 34, Part 104 is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office for Civil Rights Department of Education. In Washington State, rules for the provision of special education are in Chapter 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC).

FAPE is an important acronym to learn!

Families often ask: What does the school have to provide? The answer to that question is FAPE. The school district is responsible to make sure a student with an eligible disability condition is receiving FAPE.

As part of their right to FAPE, a student eligible for an IEP has the right to an individualized services program that ensures their education is appropriate, equitable, and accessible. All of those terms are part of FAPE. Figuring out how to provide FAPE is the work of an IEP team, and part of FAPE is ensuring that family is part of the decision-making team.

FAPE must ensure that the student finds meaningful success, in light of their circumstances. Trivial progress on IEP goals or the same goals year after year does not meet the federal standard for FAPE. A lawsuit referred to as Endrew F was settled by the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court and included specific requirements for meaningful progress and parent participation.

If a neighborhood school cannot provide the services and programming to guarantee FAPE within the general education classroom, then the school district is responsible to work through the IEP process to design an individualized program and placement that does meet the student’s needs. Keep in mind that Special Education is a Service, Not a Place: see PAVE’s article with that statement as its title.

IDEA considers the whole life of a person with a disability

IDEA includes Parts A, B and C. The right of a child with disabilities to receive an education that prepares that child for adult life is stated in Part A: ​

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society…

“Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Part B of the IDEA covers children ages 3 through 21—or until graduation from high school. Students who receive services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are covered under Part B.

Part C protects children Birth to age 3 who need family support for early learning. ​The disability category of developmental delay overlaps early learning and IEP and can qualify a child for free, family-focused services to age 3 and school-based services through age 9. PAVE provides an Early Learning Toolkit: Overview of Services for Families of Young Children.

To qualify for an IEP, a student meets criteria in one of the following eligibility categories. Washington State describes each eligibility category in WAC 392-172A-01035. For more information and resources related to each category, please refer to PAVE’s article, Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.

  • Autism
  • Emotional Behavioral Disability
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Speech/Language Impairment
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Hearing
  • Deafness
  • Deaf blindness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-9)

Educational evaluations ask 3 key questions:

The disability must have an adverse impact on learning. Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. Following procedures described by the IDEA, school districts evaluate students to consider 3 key questions:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

When each answer is yes, a student qualifies for services. In each area of identified need, Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability to access FAPE. Progress in that area of learning is tracked through goal-setting and progress monitoring. PAVE provides various articles about the evaluation process, including a sample letter to refer a student for services.

IDEA’s Primary Principles

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is not only free but also appropriate, designed just for them. Under IDEA rules, schools provide special education students with “access to FAPE,” so that’s a common way to talk about whether the student’s program is working.
  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at children with potential disabilities (Child Find Mandate). There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the child’s education can be improved.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper or a location (Special Education is a Service, Not a Place). The program is reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and family. Every student on an IEP gets some extra help from teachers, but the rest of the program depends on what a student needs to learn. Areas of need may be academic, social and emotional skills, and/or general life skills. By age 16, an IEP includes a plan for life beyond high school, and helping the student make a successful transition into life after high school becomes a primary goal of the IEP.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Regular classrooms and school spaces are the least restrictive. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to access FAPE, then the IEP team considers other options. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document. PAVE has an article about LRE.
  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA and state regulations about IEP team membership make it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision-making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices (WAC 392-172A-03100).
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. A copy of the procedural safeguards is downloadable in multiple languages from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the guidance agency for Washington schools. Parents may receive procedural safeguards from the school any time they request them. They also may receive a copy if they file a complaint with the state. Procedural safeguards are offered when a school removes a student for more than 10 days in a school year through exclusionary discipline. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions a parent can take informally or formally.

PAVE provides information, training, resources, and 1:1 support through our Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. To get help, reach out through our Help Request Form or by calling 800-572-7368.