The United States guarantees 7.2 million students with disabilities an equal education. But the system is broken. For this package, we spoke with students, parents, teachers, and advocates about the dire state of—and efforts to fix—programs for students with disabilities. You can read all the stories here.
We asked our readers for stories about their experiences with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Below are their responses. They range from hopeful to devastating, as educators, parents, and students work to provide essential education to disabled students—even in a system that often fails all of them.
We have a 13-year-old daughter with disabilities. We recently advocated for ourselves unsuccessfully (mind you I am a professor who teaches special ed law). We obtained an advocate and were still unsuccessful. Recently, we went to a due process hearing to fight for her civil rights. If we lose, she loses everything: social, educational, quality of life, you name it.
I am a parent of an adult with disabilities. My son is 30 and I had to fight for every single bit of service he received. Still, after all these years, families seem to be worse off. Teachers need support from the government. Unfortunately, the state of education in our country is in crisis and children with disabilities will lose the most.
August Weeks, student
I am a student currently with an IEP. My IEP hardly does anything for me; I maybe get on a couple meetings every once in a while, but I don’t get much assistance. I’m autistic and have ADHD, but I hardly get any help from these people that are supposed to help me. I get an assignment excused sometimes, but that’s about it. My IEP hardly does anything for me; I maybe get on a couple meetings every once in a while, but I don’t get much assistance. I just wish I had more personal help, someone who can tutor me or something like that.
Robert Cliver, parent
My daughter has been a special needs student in California schools her whole life, and our experience has been, on the whole, very positive. There is a lot of support from teachers and from the school district—but it still does not go far enough. The main issue is staffing. My daughter’s favorite teacher quit her job and left the profession due to the lack of support from the school and the district.
Bonnie Raphael, educator
I taught Sp Ed for 20 years for LAUSD. The teachers I worked with were dedicated, but the obstacles to getting one-on-one help for students who required this were often insurmountable. The time and paperwork required to write reports are not given to teachers. Lawyers and school administration have taken over the process. I watched this happen. It kept children from getting help.
Mikki Chalker, parent
OMG I don’t even know where to start on the IEP process. I am the mother of a severely disabled 20-year-old. First of all there is the unconscious bias of kids like mine (not very verbal) not being intellectually intact. Then there is the systemic bias of special education being treated as de facto daycare. Then there is the matter of testing that works for our kids—or, to be precise, the LACK of any testing that really works for disabled kids.
My son with diagnosed ASD was removed from his IEP in kindergarten. My son’s first-grade teacher outright told me that she didn’t give my son any accommodations. They failed him! Instead of getting him help, or at a minimum an evaluation for handwriting, they suggested maybe he should just learn how to type or try speech-to-text. This is a first-grader going into second grade.
My daughter is on an IEP in Jefferson County, Colorado. In her small-ish middle school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, they use a push-in program. Kids with IEPs are in classes with their peers, the regular teacher has a para or the special education teacher for additional support. The teachers modify her assignments and give her extra time. She also receives a small amount of pull-out time to practice social skills. One of her teachers offers her free tutoring before school and we also pay for outside tutoring and homework help. This school is doing an outstanding job! Having previously been a teacher in low-income public schools, I saw firsthand that kids with IEPs were not getting their needs met. These kids weren’t just falling through the cracks but were getting pushed through the cracks.
John Black, parent
I am a 50 percent custody father of a 12-year-old autistic son in South Jersey. We begged our district to give our son a certified autistic aide for lunch and recess. Our son was beaten up by another 1st grader. No teacher even reported this until I saw my son’s black eye. We now pay for online classes with zero help from our district! We are fortunate we can afford this, but many others are being ignored.
My son is dyslexic. He went to a parochial school for grade school and did really well until the fourth grade. When he started to struggle, his doctor recommended having him tested for a learning disability. A long and expensive process. From there we did the IEP, again a long and painful process. After all that, the teachers just weren’t willing to stick with the plan. He had additional learning sessions with a dyslexia specialist and they talked about how hard it can be for dyslexic kids to do cursive. We had this documented and the school still insisted he write in cursive. It was such a small thing, but it really frustrated him. After two years of battling the school, we finally moved him to a private school that specializes in learning differences. He was like a new kid! Happier, no longer angry, funny. He got to be a kid again.
Keith Sadler, former student
I was a student with an IEP. I’m 42. We were never informed about our rights. Even then, the discussion around my teacher being already overwhelmed (in the ’80s and ’90s) was enough justification for them to ignore me.
My 20-year-old daughter, now a college student, had an IEP, from age 3 (2006) until 4th grade. My child suffered from speech delay and sensory issues. I am ever so grateful to the public school system. I was a first-time parent at age 42 with an unplanned pregnancy. I had to advocate for my child to get services. Those services worked.
I am in the ESE trenches as a middle school language arts special ed teacher. It is so excessively difficult to provide the services these kids are entitled to—and deserve. It’s ultimately a systemic issue in that we need more teachers to help spread out the workload. We’re too overloaded. As it is, I have over 20 ESE cases, and I teach three grade levels that each have to be planned for individually. To follow each IEP “with fidelity” would effectively add several more preps. There’s just no time. It’s way worse than futile.
Andrew D., parent
My son currently has an IEP that partly failed. I am of the last of the no-child-left-behind generation and was in special ed. At a time when IEPs and 504s were just being developed. Today I wonder, will my son have to continue struggling from similar theoretical plans that have no practical way of being implemented, while the system continues to use kiddos as guinea pigs just to show they are actively doing something?
Laurel Adams, parent
My son has autism and adhd and has an IEP with our local public school district in Vallejo, CA. Getting him the services he needs has been a struggle. He has had an IEP for about 4-5 years now and because of all the laws, etc, it’s really overwhelming. The most common things I’ve noticed is 1) teachers are not becoming familiar with my son’s IEP and resort to just sending my son out of the classroom, 2) teachers downright refusing to use the IEP, saying “it doesn’t work,” 3) sending him home due to his behavior, but not actually suspending him, 4) threatening my son that they will call me and he’ll be in trouble at home, and 5) yelling and other psychologically abusive actions.
Read the rest of our package on the state of education for students with disabilities here.