Success in School

  • August 13, 2015

Special Education Self Advocacy Tips from Erika and Madeline Reyes

By: Francisca Guzman

The story of Erika Reyes and her daughter Madeline is not unique. When we met nine-year-old Madeline, she was having problems at school—directions were difficult to follow and she had to ask her teacher to repeat things several times. Her teacher said that these difficulties were due to Madeline speaking Spanish at home; Mrs. Reyes felt that it was something more than that. 

What motivated you to seek help from DRT? 

My daughter, Madeline, had been having trouble with school for about 2 ½ years. She didn't understand instructions very well and would forget new concepts easily. After consulting with her doctor and a specialist, Madeline was diagnosed with hearing loss in her left ear, in addition to memory problems and anxiety. She was prescribed with an FM system to use in school and began to receive speech therapy. Happy to know what I needed to do to help her, I took this information to the school, but they did not want to use this technology, nor did they give me other options. One day I had a meeting with a social worker at Vanderbilt and she gave me DRT’s information. 

What help and services did DRT provide you? 

After I called the intake line, a DRT advocate reached out to me with an interpreter, as my primary language is Spanish. I explained my daughter’s situation at length and my advocate provided me with advice on how to prepare for IEP meetings. It was my first time truly understanding the importance of these meetings. My advocate also gave me resources to better understand Madeline’s assistive technology (AT) and how this would help her in class. Finally, she accompanied me to IEP meetings at Madeline’s school. With her help, I was able to present ideas on how they could help my daughter including how to use the AT, offering special seating in class, and tutoring to help her catch up to her grade level standards. 

It’s important to be able to self-advocate in these situations—what advocacy strategies have you learned to help Madeline? 

During the process of working with my DRT advocate, I identified several mistakes I had been making in my interactions with school personnel. I learned that all requests for IEP meetings and communications with the school should be done in writing and to have an agenda with questions and concerns ready to begin the IEP meeting. But the most important thing I learned is to not feel intimidated and not be afraid (even with a room full of professionals), since I requested the meeting I had the right to direct it to best meet Madeline’s needs. 

Any advice you would like to give parents that may be in a similar situation? 

I encourage parents to not give up and to seek help on how to best advocate for their child. Language should not be a barrier for our children to benefit from the many services available to help them succeed in school. 


Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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