Law in Contemporary Society

The Path to Disabilities Rights Advocacy

-- By AliJimenez - 18 May 2021


Before law school, I spent four years teaching 6th-grade math. Over the years teaching in East Harlem, I grew more and more frustrated that my students with disabilities were not getting the services they needed. The services (as dictated by 504s and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)) did not materialize due to what I was told were “budget” or “staffing constraints.” As a result, my students with disabilities were at a higher risk of remaining further behind than their counterparts. As an individual who once benefitted from such services due to my hearing disability, I was frustrated by the added layer of marginalization my students faced. In my own graduate studies program, I spoke with other New York City teachers and realized that the obstacles that my students with disabilities faced were not specific to my own school or network. These issues to special education students remain symptoms of larger systemic issues in American public education. What is even more worrisome now is the impact on students’ overall needs with disabilities amidst COVID-19.

Defining Terms -- Services, IEPs, and 504s

Services for students with disabilities can encompass a wide range of types. Any one student may require one or more of these services. Specialized instruction, in contrast, adapts the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address the needs stemming from a students’ disability. Not every student that has a disability will require specialized instruction. For those that do, IDEA provides the procedural requirements and provides the process for developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP is a written document that outlines a plan to provide a child with a Free and Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment. The IEP is formed in conjunction with a student’s parent or guardian and a special education teacher and has mandated services and growth goals outlined. A 504 is provided by the Rehabilitation Act and is for students with disabilities that do not require specialized instruction but do need accommodations to assure equal access to public education and services.

COVID-19s Implications on Services

Providing services to students with disabilities has been a difficult process within New York City even before the onset of the epidemic. Staffing issues and budget constraints often led to a lack of materialized services by our network. The switch to virtual learning has created challenges to providing services to students that may require counseling, small group instruction, speech services, occupational therapy, or more. With this said, the epidemic’s onset does not discount the fact that IDEA requires that each student receive free and appropriate education, regardless of whether students are in a classroom environment or learning virtually. Additionally, the epidemic’s harsh and quick reality led to a sort of acceptance on the part of the United States Department of Education that special education services would be put to the wayside, supported by US Department of Education legal guidance on COVID-19 which justified carve-out “exceptional circumstances” that modify how services might come to fruition amidst the epidemic.

Legal Advocacy and Accountability for Services

Despite the US Department of Education’s initial legal guidance, states have begun to look into school districts across the country that have failed to provide appropriate services to students with disabilities amidst COVID-19. Investigations have launched in school districts within Indiana, Washington, and California examining possible discrimination against students with disabilities by failing to abide by FAPE requirements amidst COVID-19. Even within New York, families have begun to use "stay put" rights to file successful lawsuits requiring that their childrens’ services must stay the same as pre-epidemic conditions and be in person when it is possible. This legal advocacy hints to the likely reality that once we fully return to in-person schooling, the effects of COVID-19 are likely to be permanent and require more legal advocacy.

Imagining a Practice

I entered law school with an overall goal of using my legal degree to advocate for individuals like my students. I wanted to make a broader impact on the realm of education and disabilities rights. Yet, for individuals like myself, that come from diverse backgrounds and have made promises to ourselves to provide for our families, it becomes easy to fall into the allure of the big corporate check that Columbia almost certainly guarantees. Yet, reflecting now on how my students’ situation has only become more heightened in need due to the epidemic’s unforeseen circumstances, it becomes apparent that I need to remain connected to the causes that motivated my actions to leave the classroom in the first place. In order to see this reality come to fruition, I believe that there are a couple of things that I can do. It is worth noting these are initial thoughts to see my goal come to fruition. The “Planning Your Practice” course would help me further develop this question.

First, while in law school, the Center for Public Research and Leadership provides a space for law students to make connections with other individuals from law schools and graduate school institutions to reimagine solutions to issues prevalent to the education system and prominent legal questions within. This will allow me to begin to create a network of support whether or not the epidemic conditions persist.

Second, I need to start envisioning a solution to the financial needs of my practice and familial situation. While education and disabilities rights advocacy is a primary goal of my future practice, there may be more financial sustainability if I were to establish my future practice as a midsize boutique firm with an expanded focus on Labor and Employment Law, Developmental Disabilities Law, Civil Rights Law, and other related practice areas. Further, by expanding the client base from individual students to both smaller and larger public and private education institutions, this may lead to more financial capital from deeper pocket clients. This expanded scope could provide the sustainability necessary to continue the advocacy that set me on the path to law school.

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r4 - 19 May 2021 - 04:29:53 - AliJimenez
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