Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

Advocating for Your Child:
Tips for Families of English Language Learners with Disabilities


Lusa Lo is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director of Special Education, University of Massachusetts, Boston. She may be reached at

In the U.S., schools and families are considered as equal partners in the education of children with disabilities. Families are expected to collaborate with schools and be actively involved in their child’s life and academic career. This expectation can be foreign to many families who are new to the country because schools may be considered as authority figures who know best. In addition, the lengthy and complicated special education process in the U.S. can be overwhelming to many families of students with disabilities. This article offers families of students who are English language learners with disabilities some suggestions to help them become involved in the education process as their childrens’ advocates and decision-makers.

When a student has a diagnosed disability, the school is required to form an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. This team includes parents, their child (if applicable), and professionals, such as special educators, a speech and language pathologist, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, and a psychologist. The child’s first IEP meeting can be very overwhelming to many parents, since all the professionals will share their child’s evaluation results and discuss the types of services their child should receive during the year. If the school does not meet with parents and explain the IEP process to them prior to the meeting, parents are encouraged to request this meeting, with interpretation support. Parents are part of their child’s IEP team. They have the right to understand the process and be prepared. At this pre-IEP meeting, parents should be able to find out information, such as the purpose of the IEP meeting, their role in the IEP team, what will be discussed at the IEP meeting, and who they can bring to the meeting.

At the beginning of the IEP process, a copy of the procedural safeguards notice is provided to the parents. Parents who are not fluent in English have the right to obtain a copy of this document in their native language. This document describes parents’ rights during the special education process and important timelines of the process. For instance, parents have the right to request an independent educational evaluation of their child if they disagree with the evaluation of their child done by the school. If parents are unclear about any of the information in the document, they should contact the special education coordinator at the school and ask for clarification.

Each year, parents of students who are English language learners with disabilities receive a huge amount of written documents from schools, government agencies, and physicians. These documents can include IEPs, evaluation reports from schools and specialists, progress reports, communication logs, and medical records in English and translated versions. These are important documents that parents must maintain, since many of them can be difficult to recover or recreate. Organizing these records by types and dates will enable parents to search for information easily.

A student’s IEP team is required to meet annually to discuss the progress the student has made throughout the year and if changes should be made in the provided special education services. In addition to the annual IEP meetings, parents can request to meet with the team any time during the year and learn about the progress of their child. During these meetings, parents should also ask about the instructional strategies that are used in their child’s school since many of these strategies are very different from what they have learned in their native country. Using the same instructional strategies at home can make sure that their children are not confused. Often, these strategies can be used in their native language.

Seek Support from the Community

Parents should not solely rely on schools for resources and supports. Due to the budget constraints, many schools do not have the resources and staff members to provide parents with the types of support they need. Parents should consider seeking support from community organizations. There is at least one Parent Training and Information Center in each state. Some states also have Community Parent Resource Centers that focus on reaching underserved families of children with disabilities, such as families that are low income or whose first language is not English (see for more information). All these centers receive federal funding and are required to support families of children with disabilities, such as offering parent education workshops and providing advocacy in IEP meetings. For parents of students who are English language learners with disabilities, many of the centers have information about local parent support groups where parents can connect with other parents who speak the same language and have children with similar disabilities. Most of the center services are free or low cost.