Volume VI Number 1, April 1999

Advocacy For K-12 Students With Disabilities: How To Get Everything Except a Bad Rep

Carmela Cunningham
Grant Young
University of California, Los Angeles
Jeff Senge
California State University, Fullerton

The Americans with Disabilities Act and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1997) may say that students with disabilities have the right to accessibility and accommodations in the classroom, but that doesn't necessarily mean that students automatically get what they need. K-12 students with disabilities, their parents and service providers often have to lobby for the technology, support and services that are necessary to get what's promised to students by the law - a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE).

Students and parents often run into situations where the school administrators are not aware of the potential of students with disabilities, and further, are not aware of the types of technology and accommodation that are readily available today.

And that's why advocacy is so important. Students with disabilities, their parents, and service providers have to know how to get the technology, physical accommodations, support and services the students need - and how to get those services quickly enough so that the student isn't held back in the educational process while waiting for the services.


Several issues face students with disabilities as they move through the educational process, and in each of the four areas discussed below, self- advocacy, parental advocacy, and service-provider advocacy become critical for educational success.


Six years after the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there's a great deal more awareness about the potential of people with disabilities than there ever has been. Unfortunately, there's still a great deal of negative attitudes among people who believe that students with disabilities can't "do" the same things that other students can. How can a blind student do math, when he can't see the equation? How can a deaf student follow directions in a science lab, when she can't hear? How can a student with a learning disability analyze literature, when she can't keep the words straight on a page? How can a student in a wheelchair use a computer, when he can't fit his chair under the computer table?

The fact is that students with all kinds of disabilities can do all kinds of things. Step one for an advocate is to help make school faculty and administrators aware of the potential of students with disabilities and - equally as important - aware of the adaptations and accommodations that are necessary for students with disabilities to succeed in the school setting.


Although many people believe that mainstreaming students with disabilities into the general population is the only way to ensure an equal educational opportunity, the truth is that mainstreaming is sometimes contrary to the best interests of particular individuals. Whether or when K-12 students with disabilities are mainstreamed into the general school population is an issue that must be addressed for each child. Some students do just fine entering the general population at a young age. Others benefit by going to special classes for a few years and then moving into mainstream classes. The critical factor is whether mainstreaming is right for an individual student, rather than moving the student into a mainstreamed setting because it's a good idea in theory. This is another issue in which parent and student advocacy becomes critical. A student and his or her family have to step up and take responsibility for making a case to school administrators as to what is best for the individual.


The perception that students with disabilities are not capable of doing the same work as their classmates is often reinforced by parents and teachers. Too often students with disabilities are not held responsible for the work that is being done by their peers, and teachers from preschool on will often have lower expectations for students with disabilities. Many teachers in early grades are so pleased that a student with a disability can do any of the class work. "She is just amazing," is the attitude. And, "We do". . . don't want to make her work harder than her friends," is the justification for lowering expectations and waiving requirements for students with disabilities.

Later, after students have in effect, been cheated out of a full K-12 education because of those lowered expectations, the students suffer when college courses and demands of the workplace are too stringent.

This becomes one of the hardest places for students and their parents to be good advocates for themselves. Because in this case, students must demand the same work and expectations from their teachers that the rest of the class gets - and often that means more work than the teacher required of the student in the first place. Students with disabilities have to demand that they be graded according to the same standard as their peers. And, when it becomes necessary, students and their parents have to demand that they be held back until they meet the same standards as the rest of the class.

Some schools have been experimenting with extending the time that elementary and secondary schools provide for students with disabilities to learn basic skills. This can include doing one year's worth of work in two year's time. However, some parents and teachers have raised the issues of the importance of having students with disabilities move ahead with their social groups and of the perception that retention is only for students who are in real trouble at school. It's time to rethink these issues and to realize that more time is a likely option for many students with disabilities. Over the long run, it's worth it for students to take the extra time when they are young to get the skills and foundations they need, rather than having to start college and enter the workplace unprepared. This advocacy issue may be the most challenging to students and their parents.


K-12 students with disabilities must be trained on adaptive computing technology as early and as much as possible. As computers permeate the general education setting, we see students as young as five being introduced to and working on computers in the classroom.

Yet, students with disabilities, especially young students, are sometimes kept away from classroom computers because teachers don't understand how students with mobility or vision impairments can operate computers. And, even when students with disabilities do get their fair share of computer time, it often does not include adaptive accommodations that can both make their computer-use more efficient and provide a method where the computer can actually help the student complete tasks that aren't usually done on the computer.

If students with disabilities are introduced to - and become proficient at using - computers at a young age, it makes the entire educational process more valuable, more efficient, and often less costly over the long run.


1. If no one at your (or your child's) school is knowledgeable or interested in adaptive computer technology, bring the information to the school. Do the research yourself. Find a computer resource center in your area (colleges and universities are a good source of information), and bring brochures and other information on adaptive computer technology to the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team or Special Education Counselor.

2. Research and share success stories about students with disabilities who have benefited by using adaptive computer technology. See what other K-12 schools and local colleges and universities are doing, and suggest a similar path for your school.

3. Discuss adaptive technology with teachers, library personnel, and computer specialists at the school, and give them information on picking accessible software and integrating the computer into regular classroom curriculum.

4. Invite faculty and staff to come and see a demonstration of students with disabilities working on adaptive equipment.

5. Encourage school administrators to seek help from federal, state and private agencies to pay for adaptive equipment and training.

6. Keep informed of assessment and funding sources that are available to help obtain the best possible education for students with disabilities. In particular, there are many resources available for adaptive computing technology information and funding.

Parents and students themselves must work to find the best path for their specific situations. They must find what is legally mandated. They must find resources that are available, and they must successfully lobby for the services they need. There are hundreds of organizations, funds and laws that support services for students with disabilities. The problem is that getting appropriate services almost never happens automatically. And that is why becoming a good self-advocate is so important.


There are several legislative initiatives aimed at providing equal educational opportunities for all American students. Here are a few that are particularly important to students with disabilities.


Originally passed in 1975 and then amended in 1986, this comprehensive legal package mandates a free and appropriate education for all students, regardless of the severity of their disabilities. It also mandates that education must be made available at public expense and provides federal grants to states for this purpose.

The 1997 version mandates that Individualized Education Programs must relate more clearly to the general curriculum and requires that regular progress reports and assessments be made.

The new law also directs more federal dollars to school districts and allows them greater flexibility to meet the needs of school children with disabilities.


The Act provides for secondary education and transitional services for individuals with disabilities from 12 to 22 years old. It authorizes funding for research and training for the development of transitional strategies and establishes demonstration models that emphasize vocational, transitional, and job placement services. This Act also provides demographics studies on the numbers and types of disabling conditions and the services required by students with disabilities.


This umbrella civil rights law is in response to the movement to provide access to mainstream education, employment, recreation, and all of society for people with disabilities. The ADA generally takes the provisions of previous disability laws, updates them and extends them to society as a whole.

As regards education, this law provides that all students must have an equal opportunity to education and that reasonable accommodations must be made for disabled students.

Cunningham, C., Young, G., & Senge, J. (1999). Advocacy for k-12 students with disabilities: How to get everything except a bad rap. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 6(1).