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Doctoral Student and Mother Give Parents a Voice in Learning Disabilities

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Doctoral Student and Mother Give Parents a Voice in Learning Disabilities

Jan Valle (left) with Elsie Aponte and her 13-year-old daughter Emily.

Jan Weatherly Valle, a doctoral student in Curriculum and Teaching with a concentration in learning disabilities, and Elsie Aponte, a mother of a 13 year-old girl, Emily, joined forces to write an article that won the Walter M. Sindlinger Writing Award. The article, "IDEA and collaboration: a Bakhtinian Perspective on parent and professional discourse" will be published by The Journal of Learning Disabilities within the next 10 to 12 months.

The annual award was established in honor of the late emeritus professor by an anonymous donor who wanted to recognize the importance of writing in the field of education.

The article has a powerful impact on the reader. The text itself represents a dialogue between practices documented in special education literature, Valle's perspective as a teacher, evaluator, and consultant, M.M. Bakhtin's theories of language, and the lived experiences of Aponte, a parent whose child is labeled language/learning disabled. The paper leads Valle and Aponte to conclude with a vision for mutual dialogic exchange between parents and professionals.

More than 25 years ago, according to Valle, Congress passed the hallmark legislation, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), mandating a "free and appropriate education for all handicapped children." This revolutionary law not only ensures access to public education for children with disabilities, but also grants parents the right to be involved in educational decisions about their children.

Nevertheless, research on the integration of parents into the special-education process exposes "less than optimal participation by parents." She added, "that in all phases of decision-making, parents demonstrated accurate perceptions of team decisions only 50 percent of the time. Parents consistently indicated confusion and/or lack of knowledge about their rights under IDEA."

"In 1978," Valle said, "I entered the field of learning disabilities. In the more than 20 years since, I have walked through the intricacies of this law with scores of families both as a public school special education teacher and as a private educational evaluator/consultant. Alongside families, I have experienced the process of assessing the law-from within the system as a public school teacher and from outside the system as an independent agent. We are far from realizing the spirit of collaboration envisioned by Congress over two decades ago."

Valle wrote, "Given the law's origin in the work of parent advocacy groups, the passionate voices of parents resonate in the due process guaranteed in the Act. IDEA assures parents the right to be informed, the right to participate, the right to challenge, and the right to appeal. What a victory these rights represent for parents! Or do they?"

Not according to Elsie Aponte, a parent of a child labeled as learning disabled. Aponte, who volunteered in her child's elementary school on the West side of Manhattan, comments on the mandated Individual Education Plan (IEP) which is to be written with the full input of the parent. She wrote, "I never felt like more of a nonentity than when I was sitting at an IEP conference. I am not a stupid person. But nevertheless, that's exactly how I feel. When I sit at a meeting and watch them shuffle through their reports, I think of the stories that some people talk about. The ones about out of body experiences. That's exactly how I feel. Like I'm floating around watching events unfold over which I have no control."

Valle agreed. She wrote that scholarship on IEP conferences consistently documents unclear explanations of psychological testing and lack of parental questioning for clarification. Valle also reports that minimal attention is given to parental rights, future collaboration, or recommendations for working with a child at home.

In research done on the quality of collaboration between parents and professionals, Valle says that parents' opinions are not given equal status to those of the professionals. Aponte illustrates the point when she says," I did not know that they [professionals] were going to sit around talking to each other about their findings, as if they were talking about a lab experiment and the conclusions they had drawn. They spoke in monotones as if they were reading from a list. Suddenly, they turned to me and asked if I had questions. I still was trying to figure out what they were saying."

During the last decade, Valle reported, results of ethnographic interviews and observations with parents from non-dominant cultures reflects minimal parental involvement in decision-making. Aponte concurs. She wrote, "Is it that maybe some of us don't have the education so they [professionals] look down on us? Is it our race? I don't know if it's because I'm Hispanic. I don't know if it's because of the way I speak."

"Over the last 20 years," Valle said, "I have consistently observed that more mothers than fathers engage in conversations with school personnel." Therefore, what impact might gender have on the status afforded to parents within the special education decision-making process?

"It appears that mothers contend with gender stereotypes in communicating with school personnel," said Valle. "It is not uncommon for mothers who voice instinctual concerns about their children's learning and behavior to be dismissed by professionals as overprotective."

Aponte recalls a relevant incident with "someone who was meeting with a teacher." She said, "The teacher and the mother were in disagreement over something. The mother was totally upset and said so. Then, she walked out. She sent her husband in to talk to the teacher, who was male, and they were able to finish the meeting with a totally different attitude. It was clearly because the teacher was a male that the mother was seen as overprotective and hysterical."

Valle critiques advocacy training for parents of children with special educational needs. She said, "If we merely instruct parents in strategies for accessing the present system, the status quo is maintained." Rather, Valle urges school professionals to examine the language and practice of special education and its relationship to the alienation of parents from the process. She asks school professionals to consider the impact of "authoritative discourse" upon collaboration with parents.

"We must recognize," Valle said emphatically, "that authoritative discourse strangles the very dialogue needed for active engagement and understanding on both the professionals and the parents. How might the dynamics shift if parents had priority on the agenda to present their understanding of the child to professionals?"

Valle and Aponte contend that it is within mutual dialogic exchange that we can move closer to realizing the spirit of IDEA.

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