I’m in Washington, DC, minutes from the Capital. In a large hotel ballroom, surrounded by parents from across the country focused on advocacy for children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, Dyslexia Hill Day 2015 is underway.
Along with a team of leaders from NCLD, Decoding Dyslexia, IDA, Eye to Eye, CAST, Benetech and others, parents just like me are not only participating, but also helping to guide the dialogue between policy makers, thought leaders, parents and students.
We, the parents, are engaging directly with leaders from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights, the National PTA, National Association of State Directors of Special Education, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates – organizations and people leading policy and practice for students with learning disabilities. We are collectively and directly engaged in conversation with the people who make decisions that directly impact our children.
I listen as dialogue deepens, tears begin to flow, personal stories about lack of access and appropriate services for children with disabilities attending our nation’s public schools are shared by parents – and actually heard by decision makers. I’m inspired and encouraged as thought leaders engage, acknowledge concerns, hear requests, explain decisions, ask questions, and outline next steps.
As I listen to Ollie Cantos, Special Counsel in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, a fire that has been building inside me for almost a decade burns hotter, more urgently, more pointedly towards a singular idea: Equal access for students with learning disabilities.
“How many times have you felt like you are all alone and people don’t understand?” Mr. Cantos asks. “It’s important to stand up, speak out. Ask for the supports you need.”
I’m live tweeting now – I cannot sit still and just listen. I have to share this important message with other parents and community members – those who are not able to be with us here in DC.
Now Ollie begins to address students directly, passionately:
Both on and off-site parents and community members begin to engage with Ollie’s comments via social media. They favorite, retweet, tune into the #DyslexiaHillDay Twitter feed even more closely. I’m continually amazed by the power of social media. It gives us the opportunity to advocate broadly and collaboratively, in real-time.
The climax of Ollie’s message is centered on encouraging parents, students and others to speak up and demand what people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities need.
Mr. Cantos encourages the captive audience to approach the Office for Civil Rights, local school districts and others, asking them to provide what the law promises they must: full and equal access to education for all students – including students with learning disabilities.
I realize this is a special moment. One that parents need to know about to inspire their advocacy efforts. Mr. Cantos has issued a direct invitation to parents and students to not only engage, advocate and ask, but to do so directly with the entities designated to provide protections for all American children.
I realize as I listen, this is the encouragement parents need. This is the permission students are looking for. Permission to continue our work and the conversation. Permission to do so without apology. Permission to do so as part of a community working together towards the same goals. It’s a powerful message about the importance of courage, perseverance and community. It’s a message I needed to hear a long time ago.
When I began my journey as a parent advocate more than 7 years ago, I felt alone. I dreaded IEP and 504 meetings that I had to attend on behalf of my kids at their Texas public school. Stigma around the topic of learning disabilities and a fear of what others would think about me, my children and my efforts to advocate for my kids at school were part of my everyday life, and added to the feeling of isolation. I didn’t understand the importance of working collaboratively with my school, with others focused on advocacy efforts, or even with my own kids to enhance and extend my advocacy efforts. I was fighting a battle with only one soldier – me. And I was not doing it very well.
Like many parents I’ve met on this journey, before I could be effective, I first needed to know that I was not taking on this work alone. Feeling like I was part of a larger effort by parents and others across the country who care about the rights of kids like mine was paramount to success. It was not until I found this camaraderie and community that I was able to make a positive and meaningful difference as a parent advocate for my two kids with learning and attention issues. And I soon recognized that I also had the awesome responsibility of advocating for thousands of other children just like mine.
Fast-forward to July 2015 in DC, as I am part of a community collectively listening to Ollie Cantos speak. There is no doubt, no denying that I am absolutely not alone. In fact, I am quite the opposite. Parents and partners like me are part of a movement. We are part of widespread and diverse efforts to create change for kids who have learning disabilities but are not provided what they need to learn and succeed at school. Students also have a unique voice and vital role in this work. And we as parents are tasked with encouraging and teaching our children self-advocacy skills alongside our own advocacy efforts.
The original mission that began personally for me years ago at an elementary school in Dallas, Texas remains the same. Stand up for the rights of all students. Tell the story. Ask for change. Rally the community to amplify the drumbeat. Partner with thought leaders to develop strategies and seek solutions. But the mission and the movement is so much bigger than me.
What I have learned as a parent on this journey – what I urge you to consider is – don’t try to do this work alone. And, whatever you do, don’t let your frustration or fear of stigma paralyze you. As Mr. Cantos called with such clarity – instead let frustration be your rallying cry. Turn your frustration into positive, collaborative advocacy by joining this community. Find your place in this work. Tell your story, and tell it as part of the collective narrative.
Hill Day 2015 made one thing even clearer to me: together we are stronger. Together our voice is more powerful. Together we will deliver what has been promised to our kids.