Listen, I’m just going to open up this article by bursting everyone’s bubbles. Because the most common questions I get from my website are about free special education advocates.

How do I find a free IEP advocate near me? Where do you find free special education advocates?

A hand holding an iPad displaying information on how to find a special education advocate.

Here are two big truth bombs about free parent advocates for special education.

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  1. FAPE is not free.
  2. Free parent advocates for special education exist, but they are not nearly as common as most parents think.

Uh oh. Yes, really. But not all is lost. Read on.

Free Advocates for Special Education

I want to dig into the second one first.

When you have a disabled child, you probably know that there is no shortage of non-profit agencies around to help you and your family.

They range from organizations supporting scientific research, to programs and services for families, to just for fun activities for a disabled child or maybe their siblings.

While living this life often feels like we are alone, we’re not. There are many agencies created just to support us and offer things to our kids.

So it naturally “feels” like since IEPs and IEP advocacy is such a huge need for us, that there certainly must be a huge number of free special education advocates for us to access.

Except, there isn’t.

Yes, they exist. Yes, many parents since 1975 have been able to access these free advocates. But their existence and their efficacy and availability has really taken a life of its own especially since the invention of social media.

Based on the calls you hear on social media, “get a free advocate!” you’d think that they’re everywhere. They’re not.

Also, in my experience, the outspoken voices calling for you to “get a free advocate!” often have very limited exposure to these free advocates. They know that they exist. And they do exist. But in very limited numbers.

I was a free parent advocate for a few years. Depending on how the non-profit agency for which I worked was doing, I’d be limited to anywhere from 10-20 hours per week. If we didn’t receive a grant we had hoped for, or donations were down, my hours would get cut.

Two women looking at a laptop in a cafe, searching for a free special education advocate.

Why There are So Few Free IEP Advocates

I won’t bore you with this explanation, but I want to at least give an overview why free IEP advocates aren’t as common as people would like.

First, the agency has to pay the special education advocate somehow. Or recruit an active volunteer base which is challenging to do.

The money has to come from somewhere. It might be fundraising, it might be grants. The grant may have very specific parameters as to what families should be served (often using federal poverty measures) and what advocates should be paid.

When I worked as a free advocate for families in my county, there was no hour limit. There were income guideline limits, but once a family secured my services I saw them through the entire situation until it was resolved.

I’ve since been told that those free advocates can now only give away five hours of free services. Arguably that’s better than nothing, but I’m not sure I can resolve any situation in five hours. And, I live in a county of 800k people. I’m not sure what one free advocate working 5 hours per family can achieve.

But being an advocate costs time, it costs gas (driving to meetings) and it often costs daycare unless the advocate only has older children. Working as a free advocate actually cost me money, because I wasn’t making enough money to cover my daycare and gas costs after taxes. It’s the second highest reason I left that agency.

What was the first reason? Philosophical differences–they did not want me lobbying or speaking up in Harrisburg and DC for some causes, which they perceived as a conflict of interest. But I digress, that’s another post for another day.

Two women sitting on a couch looking at a laptop with a free special education advocate.

FAPE is not Free

FAPE stands for Free and APpropriate Education. The term came from a SCOTUS decision, and defined our kids’ federal entitlement.

Ideally, our kids’ education should be free. The Supreme Court even said so.

Except it isn’t.

If nothing else, our kids’ education will cost us (parents) time. We will spend more time learning about IEPs, attending IEP meetings, and advocating for our kids’ to get FAPE.

But it’s not free. Even if we don’t spend any money on supplies, services or hiring an advocate, we have spent time. And time is a cost.

Part of my advocacy philosophy is that I will always tell you the ideal–the “what should be.” What should be is that FAPE is truly free.

But what I also will tell you is the “what is.” I will always advocate for the “what should be” but we also have to work within the parameters of “what is.” I feel it’d be irresponsible of me as an advocate to not do this.

Because the “what is” is what you will encounter when you go out into the world looking for the “what should be.” Make sense?

The “what is” right now is that we, IEP parents, have costs that other parents do not have. So whether that’s medical costs, time costs…we have more costs.

The “but it’s FAPE and it should be free” is one of the biggest hurdles I come across as a working advocate. People do not want to pay for an advocate, because FAPE should be free. That mental hurdle often even prevents parents who can well-afford an advocate from hiring one, because they keep thinking “well, it should be free.”

Yes, there are free advocates out there, but they are few and far between. There are free training options out there, but again, not as common as parents think. And, their efficacy varies. You have to decide what is right for you and your family, but the “what is” is that free advocates are just not as common as people think.

Free Special Education Advocate

So where do you find free special education advocates near you?

For starters, there should be a list of agencies in the back of your Special Education Procedural Safeguards. That’s the little booklet I lovingly refer to as “the booklet that parents never read.”

We all sign a sheet every year that we received them, most parents never read them. Read them. And, look for that list of agencies in the back.

Every state has a Parent Training Center for Disabilities that is federally funded, and a state Protection and Advocacy Agency for Disabilities. These two places are the second place I’d look for, to see what they offer as far as advocacy services.

The third place I’d try is the agencies or non-profits associated with my child’s disability. I’m talking about the non-profits that have been created to support Down Syndrome, or Autism, or ADHD, or Angelman, or Fragile X, or, or, or.

There are literally thousands of them, and yes, some of them have advocates on staff for low or no cost.

Two women sitting on a couch talking to each other about a free special education advocate.

Free Advocates for Special Education

Do you know who is the best free advocate for your child?

You.

Yes, really.

A good IEP advocate knows the IEP process better than you do. You know your child better than they do.

Rather than teach them about your child, it’s much easier for you to learn the IEP process. And it’s much more cost effective. Most of us have kids in the system for 5, 10 or even 15 years.

Even if you took the most expensive training option out there, it’s much less money than hiring an advocate for that long.

Consider it, for sure. I offer one that is extremely cost effective. Yes, sure, some of you will read this, get to the end and say, “Pffft, all that, only to try and get me to sign up for her training?”

Do it, or don’t. I’m fine either way. I’ve given you several realistic options to try and find a free special education advocate near you. Even if you find one, chances are unless you meet the federal criteria being at the poverty level, you won’t be able to hire one. So, that leaves you with option of either hiring a paid advocate or taking advocacy training yourself.

But, you’re already searching online for an advocate. That means something in your gut is telling you that you need one. And in 14 years of doing advocacy work, I’ve never seen a situation resolve on its own.

Good luck in whatever you choose.

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