A Sit-Down with Olga Pribyl, Equip for Equality
Tell us about Equip for Equality’s Special Education Clinic & Helpline. What are the most common issues parents and guardians come to you with?
Our Special Education Rights Parent Helpline answers questions, provides support and assists parents with learning about their legal rights. Our Helpline attorneys review documents, give advice, and provide the support parents need to become successful self-advocates for their children.
Often, parents and guardians who have a poor education, who have limited literacy or are non-English speakers, or who lack the confidence to assert their student’s rights need ongoing legal help to solve a problem. That’s where the Clinic steps in. We represent students in IEP meetings, mediations, and due process hearings.
The most common issues parents and guardians face are part of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. The IEP is supposed to include everything a student in special education needs to succeed in school. Issues arise when schools try to change the IEP in a way the parents disagree with, remove services or supports, or try to relocate the student to a different school or setting. A lot of the work our Clinic and Helpline do revolves around helping parents understand their rights at IEP meetings and how to challenge changes the school is trying to make.
How has COVID-19 affected special education students?
When the coronavirus pandemic began, the Helpline immediately saw a need to quickly and safely help students with disabilities and their families understand their rights as schools across the state switched to remote learning. In the very beginning, there was a lot of confusion about what remote learning was going to look like. One of the first things we did was create new fact sheets about special education rights and strategies during the pandemic. Then we changed our training model from in-person to virtual. In the first months of the pandemic, we held training webinars that nearly 200 families and providers attended.
A year into the pandemic, we are still taking calls from parents who have significant difficulties with remote learning due to COVID-19 closures and need information on how to advocate to improve their child’s remote learning experience. A lot of students with sensory issues have trouble with masks and need extra support for that if they are learning in person—that’s been an issue we have seen over and over again.
Armed with information about their children’s legal rights during COVID-19, parents have successfully gained additional services, accommodations and modifications, and when appropriate, in-person learning.
We also anticipate an even greater need when students return full-time to in-person learning after most likely falling behind. There are specific laws in place to help students in special education catch up due to missed educational services. And many students in special education will need to re-adjust to their “new” setting back in school, which will most likely result in an increase in behavioral issues that parents will call about.
What’s the one thing you want legislators and other policymakers to know about the families and students you advocate for?
Due to the pandemic, there has been incredible educational loss to all students, but especially students with disabilities. There needs to be legislative remedies to help students regain lost educational opportunities, particularly for students who are aging out of the special education system since adult services are so limited in Illinois.
On a personal level, what are you most looking forward to doing once we return to some version of ‘normal’ later this year?
I’m looking forward to big family gatherings which I have really missed and being able to be with friends. There is no substitute for human contact and interaction.