Practical Tips for Advocating for Your Child

As children and families across the nation gear up for a new school year, Lighthouse Guild is pleased to provide some pointers for parents to help their children at school and in other activities. The following article is reprinted from Awareness, a newsletter produced by NAPVI (National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments).

For parents of kids with vision loss, the call to be your child’s advocate can come up weekly or even daily, often when you least expect it. Whether it’s your child’s school, or day care, summer camp or blindness agency, doctor’s office or government agency, some practical tips can help you be a good advocate, even with no professional training in advocacy. Here is a starter kit.

Whatever the issue, first identify your goal. At school, you may want more Braille instruction hours for your child. At day care, you may want more activities planned to include your child with sighted kids. Don’t just present your problem to the powers that be—offer them a solution.

Next, find out who has the power to give you what you seek. If it’s more Braille instruction hours, your child’s front-line teacher likely doesn’t decide this. Do some investigating. Don’t waste time trying to convince people who sympathize, but who can’t solve this.

When you discover who the key decision-maker is, focus efforts on meeting with him or her face-to-face. Long emails to them are nowhere near as effective as sitting across the table, building a personal bond, looking them in the eye, and winning their support.

LEARN YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE

If you arrange a meeting, talk to everyone you can in advance to learn about them. What makes them tick? Ask in a nice way how best to approach the person with whom you’ll meet. When that face-to-face meeting approaches, plan in advance who within your family is coming, and who will do the talking. If you talk over each other, you’ll fritter away scarce time.

How best can you present your point? Don’t come in with a long, rambling story, which we must endure until the end before we find out what you want. Start with the bottom line. “My daughter would really benefit from more hours per week of Braille instruction. I know your budget is really tight, but let me tell you why this will end up saving your budget money, and will make your staff proud of what they accomplish.”

Bring copies of supportive documentation with you, neatly organized, that you can quickly present. “Here are my daughter’s last three report cards and letters from her teachers, all showing she’d learn so much more with just a few more Braille instruction hours.”           

Keep an eye on the clock. If you have a 30-minute meeting, don’t just talk and talk until the time runs out. Get the person you’re meeting to talk as soon as you can. Listen carefully to what they say. Their responses can be an invaluable glimpse into what’s on their mind. That glimpse helps you then focus on the points most likely to persuade them.

ADDRESS THEIR CONCERNS

Take notes of what he or she says. Be sure to address all their concerns, or ask for time to go away and find answers for them.

Never lose your temper. As a parent, your blood may boil when some official doesn’t seem sympathetic. However, losing your temper doesn’t convince anyone. It may be tough, but take a deep breath. Keep pressing your request. Stay polite, calm, but firm in your position. You can blow off steam later at home, venting to your friends and family.

If the person agrees with what you want, IMMEDIATELY confirm it in writing. If, as the meeting’s end draws near, the person says they need time to look into it, ask them these important questions:

  1. When can you get back to me?
  2. Can we book a follow-up meeting?
  3. What do you need to be satisfied of, before you can agree to our request?

Confirm their answers to these questions in writing.

Finally, if you get a total refusal right there, ask for their reasons. Write it down. Then quickly confirm it all in a letter or email afterwards. Before the meeting is over, ask if more information might lead them to reconsider. If not, ask who is further up the organization, who has authority over them. That will have to be your next stop, using all of these tips.

As you proceed, you may have to flexibly adjust your goals. You may get offered another solution, not the one for which you aimed. Always keep an open mind. Be ready to accept what you think is the best for your child, and the best you can get.

Each time you try this, you become a better advocate.

Written by David Lepofsky, who is blind, is a lawyer in Toronto, Canada and a volunteer disability rights advocate. He led the fight for passage of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. He has won human rights cases forcing audible announcement of bus and subway stops in Toronto.