In The Politics of Autism, I write about the experiences of different economic, ethnic and racial groups. Inequality is a big part of the story. Affluent school districts have more resources than poor ones. Educated professionals are better able to protect their children's interests than poor people who never went to college.
Attorneys have become major figures in the world of autism, because people often need legal counsel to get services from school districts and other government agencies. Soon after a diagnosis of autism, parents seek advice from those who have already been on the path. And soon they will hear, “Get a lawyer.”
The rights approach puts a great burden on parents to serve as advocates for their children. Highly-educated, affluent parents are in a better position to do so than the poor and uneducated: for one thing, their social networks are more likely to include lawyers and expert witnesses.
But even the best-equipped parents are at a disadvantage against school district administrators and other bureaucrats. Like their representatives in Washington and state capitals, they are “repeat players.” Their experience and expertise give them an edge that the parents’ special-education lawyers can only partially overcome.
The Government Accountability Office has a report titled "IDEA Dispute Resolution Activity in Selected States Varied Based on School Districts’ Characteristics."
In school year 2016-17, 35,142 special education disputes were filed nationwide, and in five selected states GAO reviewed, dispute resolution options varied across school districts with different socioeconomic and demographic characteristics. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides parents several ways to file and resolve disputes about plans and services that school districts provide to students with disabilities. A greater proportion of very high-income school districts had dispute resolution activity as well as higher rates of dispute activity than very low-income districts in most of the five states GAO reviewed. GAO also found that in most of these states, a smaller proportion of predominately Black and/or Hispanic districts had dispute resolution activity compared to districts with fewer minority students; however, predominately Black and/or Hispanic districts generally had higher rates of such activity. Technical assistance providers and others told GAO that parents used dispute resolution most often for issues related to school decisions about evaluations, placement, services and supports, and discipline of their children.
Parents may face a variety of challenges in using IDEA dispute resolution, and the Department of Education and states provide several kinds of support that, in part, may address some of these challenges. Stakeholders cited challenges such as paying for attorneys and expert witnesses at a due process hearing, parents’ reluctance to initiate disputes because they feel disadvantaged by the school district’s knowledge and financial resources, and parents’ lack of time off from work to attend due process hearings. Education and state agencies provide technical assistance to support parents’ understanding of their rights under IDEA and to facilitate their use of dispute resolution options, for example, by providing informational documents and phone help lines to parents.