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Effective Advocacy on Behalf of Children in Educational Settings

Editor's Note: Editor's note: The text set out below is a speech given by Mr. Fenton at the On the Way To Success II conference in Edmonton, Alberta on October 21, 2000.

Before beginning my formal remarks, I would like to thank the conference organizers for inviting me to speak to you today. The topic of advocacy as it relates to blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind children has not received as much attention as it should from academics and the service sector charged with assisting the blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind children. I am pleased that you have given me the opportunity to present my views to you on the topic of advocacy so that we may empower the next generation of blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind children to be successful contributors in Canadian society.

Advocacy means different things to different people. One of the essential components of the definition of advocacy is the ability to persuade. In many cases when we are presented with problems, we have to convince a person or group of people that we are having difficulties in persuading them that our point of view is the point of view which should be followed in a given situation. The only weapons we have in this exercise are the written or the spoken word. As a result, we need to know how to present our views as powerfully and as reasonably as possible to show the other person or group of people that our views have merit, that they are well researched and well presented.

The second component of advocacy which is important is the desire to achieve a specific objective. That objective may be either to maintain the status quo if the individual is satisfied with the level of service or benefits that they are receiving or to argue for change in cases where the level of services, the level of benefits or the quality of services are inadequate. Before embarking on an effort to persuade, it is important that you understand the objective that you're trying to achieve. This is important because the techniques that you may use to persuade people will be different depending on your objective. If you remember these two key points, namely the need to persuade and the need to set a concrete objective, you are well on your way to becoming an effective advocate.

The third point to remember when engaging in advocacy is that when you are trying to persuade someone to do something to achieve a specific goal, it is important that the goal that you select be reasonable and achievable. One way to assess the reasonableness and the achievability of the goal that you select is to speak to other parents or other individuals with expertise who may have faced the same issue that you are dealing with now. During these kinds of consultations, you will be able to find out what techniques they used to try to solve the problem and whether those techniques were successful or not. If they were not, you might be able to receive advice on other alternatives which were not tried during the advocacy efforts of the people you consulted. You may also choose to consult other kinds of consultants in addition to other parents. You can also obtain useful information from research papers and other useful materials which others reviewed when formulating their positions on the same issue. This kind of material may be important to you in setting the background and the context for your own presentation to the school staff or other authorities.

In addition to consulting with other parents and other individuals who have expertise in dealing with blindness, vision-impairment or deaf blindness, you should try also to discover if the school board or other agency that you are dealing with has faced this issue before. If the matters involved are not confidential and if any documents produced as a result of the resolution of the matter are part of the public record, you should attempt to obtain those documents because they also may help you in formulating your position.

From a very early age, we have all been advocates. We all started by advocating for a need to have food when we emerged from the womb. We developed the technique of crying to let people know that we were hungry or needed to be changed. I can tell you that anybody who has listened to a young baby in that situation will agree that in just about every case, the child gets what he or she wants. Part of the reason for that is that the baby's message is so simple and direct.

As we reach our teenage years, our advocacy with our parents often becomes more confrontational. We learn the ability to argue for such important concessions as later bed times, the ability to go out on dates with the person of our choice and not our parents' choice, that it is acceptable to defer doing our homework until we want to do it, etc. In many of these activities, teenagers do not often believe that subtlety is an effective form of advocacy. Instead, confrontation rather than persuasion is often the order of the day.

As we reach adulthood, we again change our advocacy styles and not necessarily for the better. Some of us become shy and don't want to advocate because we become nervous about what we're supposed to do. In other cases some of us present messages that are so complex that our audience doesn't understand them.

In still other cases, some become so confrontational that the audience simply stops listening. It is these three points that I will now address individually.

The biggest difficulty that most parents face when advocating on behalf of their children is a lack of confidence and outright shyness. These qualities generally come through because it is perceived by the parent that they are put in a position where they can't rock the boat because their child will suffer adverse consequences if they do. As a result, many parents of blind, vision-impaired and deaf-blind children either don't advocate on behalf of their children at all, or if they do, it is done in such a way that the parent is perceived as being weak, timid and easy to intimidate. This plays right into the hands of the school administration since there is an inexorable desire in many cases for the school teachers and administrators to maintain the status quo because of budgetary considerations, the unwillingness of the teacher or administrator to change their job duties to accommodate only one student, etc.

The parent's fear that their child may suffer a consequent reduction in service if the parent advocates too strongly for a particular point of view is a real and legitimate concern. So how is it that a parent should attempt to persuade a school administrator or school teacher that their child is not receiving enough service when there is a real danger that service levels may be cut further if the parent advocates on behalf of her/his child? How should this be done when the parent is nervous or shy?

One way to achieve this objective is to make sure that you are very well prepared for the session so that when you are questioned, you can answer confidently and forthrightly. For example, if the problem deals with the fact that your child does not have enough access to braille teaching, try and contact parents who have children who are receiving braille teaching services from other school boards and find out what level of service they are receiving. If the level of service is higher, you can make the argument that your child is receiving less service than what is provided by other boards within the same province. Most education acts require the province to deliver services at the same level and with the same consistency throughout the province. This kind of argument will be very persuasive to school authorities especially if you can point out that they are offside the provisions of the Education Act. No school officials will relish the prospect of having their programs audited by government and have them found to be wanting.

The second technique that you can use if you feel shy or lack confidence is to take another person with you. This is often very effective since you and the other person who is accompanying you can define your roles in advance of the meeting in question. One of you can play the 'good cop' and the other can play the 'bad cop.' This is often a very effective strategy when dealing with the school administrator one on one since generally, educators possess the personalities of trying to solve problems rather than creating them. With the 'bad cop' present, the 'good cop's' arguments appear to be much more reasonable and more likely to be accepted by the school administrator. If the person who is inherently shy plays the 'good cop,' the tendency to say little and to say what you say as calmly as possible will actually be more effective since you would only be speaking when necessary and presenting good ideas on each occasion. You would leave it to the 'bad cop' to bluster, to rampage and to put forward the very strong positions that are needed to create the impression that you are as the parent being very reasonable.

Now we turn to the issue of complexity. When some parents advocate on behalf of their blind, vision-impaired or deaf blind child, they assume that their audience knows as much about their child's disability as the parent does. In reality, even though a school teacher may have a vision-impaired child in their class, that teacher may not necessarily understand the nature of the child's disability and any limitations that it may impose. So how is it that we should advocate either for the status quo or for a change in services being provided to our children when our audience really doesn't understand what we're talking about? The first thing we should do is try to keep the message as simple as possible. One way to simplify your message is to try it out on somebody else who is not familiar with your child's disability and any limitations associated with it. Once you have prepared your presentation and before you deliver it to the teacher or other school administrator involved, present it to a friend and get their feedback. If the friend doesn't understand what you're saying, it's quite likely that the school teacher won't either.

The second technique to follow is especially useful when you're relying on research materials and other information. In addition to presenting the complex research papers that you may be relying on, take the time and summarize the important points in two or three sentences each. These summaries will often be more useful than the actual papers themselves especially if the summaries are written in clear and unambiguous language. You could also use the summaries as part of your presentation to emphasize the important points that are in the research papers. But the most important thing is don't fall into the trap of using the complex language that the academic researchers used. Keep it simple and straightforward.

The third technique is to give the listener the opportunity to ask you questions. In this way, you will find out what the individual is actually concerned about and you'll have the opportunity to address those concerns. If you don't allow for questions, you won't have the inside track into what concerns the decision maker might have. When answering the questions, be sure to keep your language as simple as possible so that the decision maker has something concrete and understandable to take out of the meeting. Also, be sure to answer the questions as directly as possible to ensure that the information provided to the questioner is relevant.

The third issue which I identified earlier in this talk dealt with the tendency of some parents who have attempted to bulldoze or bully school boards and their employees in their advocacy efforts on behalf of their children. This kind of confrontational attitude, when engaged in early on in the advocacy process, serves no useful purpose. In fact, it may serve to alienate the child's interests rather than promoting them. It is not necessary to bully someone to take a strong position in advocacy. Strong positions can be presented reasonably, fairly and effectively with- out shouting and without showing disrespect to your opponent. Confrontation should only be used as a last resort when all other approaches have failed.

The tendency to engage in this type of advocacy approach occurs most often in emotionally charged situations. Here are some helpful hints to follow when you are dealing with an emotionally charged situation on behalf of your child. In these situations, there is a tendency to bully as the level of anger increases.

First, I suggest that when a situation is highly charged, make an extra effort to think before you speak. When I am faced with this problem in a difficult negotiation, I usually count to five in my mind before I say anything. This helps me calm down and allows me to analyze the issue before I speak.

The second piece of advice is make a special effort not to shout. The louder your opponent talks, the quieter you should speak. This is a very effective disarming technique which can be used to reduce the level of anxiety. As one of my colleagues once said, 'it is no fun to try to push against somebody who does not push back.'

My third suggestion is that if the situation really starts to heat up and there is real question as to whether or not you have the ability to keep your cool, ask for a break. This will give you the opportunity to collect yourself.

If you are faced with a particularly difficult sit- uation where you require advice, you may want to ask to adjourn the meeting compl- etely to obtain further advice. This may be important when you have an older child who may have a perspective to share before a solution is arrived at. There is nothing worse than proceeding in an emotionally charged meeting when you don't have all the facts at your disposal to deal properly with the situation. Earlier in my talk, I indicated that before any advocacy is undertaken on behalf of your child, it is wise to establish a plan so that you have a road map for determining what you want and how you want to get it. I will now discuss the idea of planning in greater detail.

When I am advocating on behalf of others, the first thing I do is I try to determine what it is that the group or person that I'm advocating on behalf of really wants to achieve. This can be done by discussing the matter with the affected individuals, obtaining advice from relevant experts, or reading applicable materials in magazines and other publications. Once I have a road map as to what the individual or the community wants, I then consider what the best approach is for getting there.

Let's take an example. This past year, the British Columbia government sought advice from stakeholders on how to restructure its special education system. The NFB: AE and other groups were asked for their input into this process. Before the NFB: AE's position was formulated, I asked everyone who wanted to participate in the process to identify all of the strengths of the current system and any concerns they had with the existing system. Once all of these comments were received, I prepared a draft brief for submission to the interested members for suggestions and revisions. Subsequent drafts were sent to stakeholders incorporating the comments that were received. In this way, we created a submission where consensus about what was being requested was achieved. Once you have established the basic position that you want to take, you have to make some strategic decisions on how to present it. In this area, some of the same comments that I made above still apply, namely, keeping your message simple, making sure your plan is well researched, etc. In addition to these factors, one must avoid the temptation to only support a solution that will satisfy you 100% of the time. There must be room left for compromise and the bar for compromise must be set at a level which is acceptable to you. Once that level is reached, it is always open to you to keep pushing to achieve a better result. The important thing is that you have to resolve the problem for your child. It is less important to achieve a resounding victory on every argument you advance. When making strategic decisions about how to ask for what you want, it is important to consider your audience. Make sure that the audience that you are advocating before has the ability to give you what you want. If it doesn't, you may need to reframe your request so that either you get before the right audience or you request something that the current audience can provide. This kind of difficulty often arises in advocacy in the education system. It is not uncommon for parents to make requests of a school teacher which would be better made of a school principal or some higher authority. Let's take for example the issue of a child participating on a cross country running team at school. In some school districts, the school districts have taken the position that blind and vision-impaired children were not permitted to participate on cross country running teams because of certain provisions in the school district's liability insurance policies. In some cases, parents decided to take this matter up with the school teacher rather than taking it up with the appropriate officials within the school district who were empowered to enter into insurance contracts with the insurer. The decision to initially approach the school teacher did not assist the parents in reaching appropriate results since the school teacher had no power to authorize let alone grant the remedy sought by the parents. This led to the parents having to become involved in several meetings with other school board officials before they worked their way up the chain to the person who actually made the decision. This slowed down the advocacy process and actually, in one case, totally prevented the child from having the opportunity to run on a school team for a full academic year.

When you are involved in advocacy on behalf of your child, you should always be prepared to answer the question which will be asked by school teachers and other school board staff as follows: 'What do you want me to do about it?' This is a very disarming question for most people because it requires the advocate to revert immediately back to their plan and identify in two or three sentences what it is they actually want. When the advocate is nervous, intimidated or shy, these emotions sometimes take over preventing the advocate from giving a clear, concrete and prompt answer. If this happens, take as long as you need to compose yourself before answering the question.

Another difficulty that often arises is that the parent genuinely does not know how to resolve the issue in question. This is because either the situation is new or because the parent is in an isolated area and does not have access to others who have encountered the same issue in the past. You should not be afraid of saying you don't know the answer. If you don't know the answer, the best approach is to use the school board and its resources to help both sides find the answer to the issue facing your child. For example, if a child needs additional braille teaching resources, and the school board does not have the staff to provide them, perhaps both sides could work together to locate a braille teacher outside of the school board's jurisdiction who would be prepared to provide the services at the school board's expense. The same applies on issues like the provision of orientation and mobility and other rehabilitation-based skills that the student may require to participate effectively within the school system. In each case, the school board does have access to the relevant Ministry of Education officials who would be able to provide advice and support on how to solve the issue faced by the child. Your job as the parent is to show the school board officials that they should take interest in resolving the issue.

Too often, parents go into an advocacy situation without knowing all of the facts. This is a dangerous practice since it often results in the parents being surprised when they learn about information for the first time during the meeting. To prevent these kinds of surprises, I suggest that you spend time speaking to your child before you try and advocate on his/her behalf. Even a five or six-year-old child may be able to tell you something useful such as: 'I don't like my teacher because s/he doesn't spend any time helping me.' If you are armed with that information, you are prepared to respond if the teacher over-exaggerates about her/his interactions with your child.

You can also obtain additional facts from other alliances that you may have formed with past teachers, teaching assistants and other officials. If you have formed such alliances, use them to obtain any information you can about the issue in dispute and how these individuals may have resolved similar disagreements in the past for your child. In evaluating your plan, you should also be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the other side's position. If you know what the strengths and weaknesses of their position are, it is easier to modify your own plan to achieve the result that you want. In all forms of advocacy, whether they be performed in writing or orally, at meetings or before the courts, the advocate has to be prepared to address and respond to the positions taken by the other side. The best approach for dealing with the other side's position is usually to address it head on and find a way to show that the position that the other side is taking either doesn't apply to your current situation or if it does, it should not be supported for any number of reasons.

Where possible, distinguish the parts of the other side's position that you don't like or can't support as being inapplicable to the current problem faced by your child. If there are parts of the other side's position that you can support, support them enthusiastically so that you appear to be reasonable.

Finally, there is a tendency among some advocates to give up when they don't achieve success immediately. In the education system especially, results often take weeks and even months to achieve. It is not uncommon for a parent to have to meet with two, three or more school board officials on more than one occasion to finally resolve the matter. In this kind of situation, it is very important that you keep pushing to achieve the outcome that you are seeking. You should be prepared on each occasion to educate the individual's present so that they fully understand what your child needs and why. While this kind of process is sometimes emotionally draining and painful, it is very important that the parent sees it through to the end to ensure that the child receives the services that he or she is entitled to receive.

It is not uncommon for school boards to use the tactic of attrition to persuade parents not to pursue a certain matter. The logic behind this strategy is that the school board has more people, more resources and more time to spend on a particular issue than does the parent. This strategy involves the school board using their advantage in resources to overwhelm the parent until the parent reaches the point that they don't know how to or don't want to proceed. The best way to avoid attrition as a form of stalling the process is to try to persuade the school board to work with you in developing a timetable for completing certain tasks. If possible, this should be reduced to writing and provided to both parties. If the school board officials decide not to follow the timetable, you then have something to show to their superiors to demonstrate that it is not effective for you to be involved in advocacy with their subordinate. Instead, you would like to work with them to solve the problem.

Another technique I have used in a situation where an advocacy exercise was turning into a war of attrition was to employ alternative dispute resolution techniques. This involves having the parent and representatives of the school board sit down with an independent third party in an attempt to resolve all outstanding issues. In these cases, it is suggested that each party reduce their positions to writing and exchange them with both the independent third party and their opponent. In these circumstances, everybody is able to prepare for the meeting and the time during the meeting is used most effectively. It is often important to have an objective third party present because that individual can cut through some of the bad feelings and other emotions which are often present when a parent and a school board are involved in a dispute with one another. The third party can talk objectively to both sides and point out the strengths and weaknesses in both of their positions. More often than not, if both sides are well prepared and take the process seriously, the dispute in question can be resolved.

I have been involved in these kinds of advocacy initiatives both on behalf of parents of children and as a mediator. In each and every case, I have found that the alternative dispute resolution process was rewarding and that results were achieved that were satisfactory to everyone.

In closing, I know that I have presented you with a lot of information. Don't be overwhelmed by this and feel free to ask as many questions as you like. If I had to sum up my comments into just a few sentences, I would say this. The best way to learn to do advocacy is to actually do it. You'll need to get into the trenches and make the mistakes that you're now afraid of making before you learn how to become the best advocate you can be. Don't be afraid of making mistakes. Everyone does. Instead, recognize that when you are advocating, you are doing so on behalf of your child who is completely dependent on you for their education. Remember it is their interests that we seek to enhance and protect and for those reasons we need to be well prepared when we advocate, and we need to keep our focus on the end result that we wish to achieve.

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