Many years ago, my parents attended their first IEP meeting for me. My mom had befriended a teacher who told her everything she needed to know before that first meeting, and the school was surprised to see how much my mom knew. This teacher taught us a lot about navigating special education, and her advice helped us more than we ever could have imagined- thank you, Ms. C!
Today, I will be sharing the things this teacher shared with us, as well as tips that we have gathered over the years from attending dozens of IEP meetings, fighting for accommodations, and many more adventures along the way. Here are ten words you need to know before your first IEP meeting, though these can help with any IEP meeting.
What an IEP is
An Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, is defined as "a plan or program developed to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives specialized instruction and related services." Students with IEPs are protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also referred to as IDEA. Students with IEPs receive services from the moment they enter school until the moment they graduate or turn 22, whichever comes first.
The 13 conditions
There are 13 conditions covered by IEPs. These conditions are:
- Specific learning disability
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Emotional disturbance
- Speech or language impairment
- Visual impairment, including blindness
- Hearing impairment
- Orthopedic impairment
- Intellectual disability
- Traumatic brain injury
- Multiple disabilities
- Other health impairment
I bolded the term "vision impairment including blindness" because often times, students with low vision are often put into a different category due to the school overlooking the vision impairment box. My school struggled to figure out what box to check for me, until my parents suggested vision impairment. Read more about these conditions on the Understood website here.
Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI)
The teacher of the visually impaired, also known as a TVI, works with the school, teachers, and student to adapt the educational environment for students with vision loss. They are certified by the state to work with visually impaired students and can visit as often as needed. I did not work with my TVI directly in the classroom, but I still learned a lot from them- read more about ten lessons my TVI taught me here.
One time, when I couldn't see a worksheet that the teacher had given me, I was told out of frustration that I just needed to sit there and try harder to see it, because no one knew what to do (read more myths of print disabilities here). Not everyone can read standard print materials, and that's okay- this is called a print disability. Print disabilities are defined as organic dysfunctions that prevent a student from being able to read standard print. Two examples of conditions that would cause print disabilities are vision impairment and learning disabilities. Read ten things that I have learned about print disabilities here.
If a student has a print disability, then they qualify for accessible materials. This can include large print, Braille, digital formats, audio recordings, or similar. The IEP defines accessible materials, including page size, font size, paper color, and more. Read more about my accommodations for print materials here, and why I prefer digital materials here.
For textbooks or other learning materials, schools may utilize outside services to create accessible materials. Here in Virginia, students receive textbooks and educational materials from AIM-VA - read my post about AIM-VA here. Students with print disabilities can also receive books from Bookshare- read my post about Bookshare here.
If a student uses accessible materials in the classroom, then they will definitely need accessible testing materials. While this might not be directly written into the IEP, it's often required that a student have an IEP to receive accommodations on tests. For accommodations for standardized tests, referred to as SOLs in Virginia; read about standardized testing here. For accommodations for the SAT, read my post on SAT accommodations here. And for accommodations on the ACT, read my post on ACT accommodations here.
Low vision (or other) specialist
Before the first IEP meeting, families are required to get a proof of disability from a specialist. For me, I would visit my low vision specialist who would certify that I had low vision and required large print in the classroom. This has to be recertified on an annual basis.
In sixth grade, I had eye surgery performed by a low vision specialist in New York, which was more than 150 miles away from my school in Virginia. My school would not accept the report from the specialist in New York because they were from out of state, and I also had never lived in New York. We had to find a local specialist that could certify my low vision and help me get additional accommodations following my surgery.
I had never heard of the term assistive technology until I was in high school, and now I'm studying it at college (read more studying assistive technology here). The legal definition of assistive technology is "Any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities." Assistive technology is so important because it helps students succeed inside and outside the classroom, and can make a huge difference in the learning environment. My IEP did not mention any specific types of assistive technology, because I was constantly checking out new devices and learning all I could.
Occupational therapy (OT)
Occupational therapy helps people of all ages, however in the context of working in schools, occupational therapy helps students with disabilities and other impairments to participate fully in educational and social activities. Occupational therapists will meet with students to complete exercises, work with assistive technology, and assist students with learning to complete basic tasks. My mom and I worked closely with an occupational therapist in elementary school, who told us that if we started with services early, then I would have a strong foundation for the future. This has proven true time and time again, and I am extremely grateful for all the ways my occupational therapist helped me- thank you, Mrs. W!
Adaptive PE provides alternative physical education classes and activities for students with disabilities or injuries. I was referred to adaptive PE in high school and the teacher did an assessment to figure out what exercises I could do, though adaptive PE is available for students in all grades. Some of my friends also were referred to the service after having surgery and benefited a lot from the customized instruction. Read more about my experiences with adaptive PE and gym classes here.
My biggest IEP goal every year was learning to self-advocate. This means knowing how to stand up for myself, what services I receive, and how to navigate life with my disability. It's an important skill to have, and we talked about it at every one of my IEP meetings too. Read my post about learning to self advocate here.
With these ten terms, you will look like an expert and learn how to get the best services and accommodations possible. I wish you the best of luck!