Volunteer Advocacy Project
Realizing the challenges parents face in advocating for their children with disabilities, The Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP) trains interested individuals to become special education advocates so they can provide instrumental and affective support to families of children with disabilities in Tennessee. Since its inception in fall of 2008, The VAP has trained more than 300 advocates across the state.
Components of The Volunteer Advocacy Project (VAP)
The VAP training is comprised of two parts: (1) a 40-hour training, and (2) the linkage of the volunteer advocate with four families of children with disabilities.
- Forty-hour training: Every participant attends a 40-hour training. In the training, various topics related to special education advocacy are taught: evaluations and eligibility, individualized education plans, assistive technology, discipline provisions, behavior intervention plans, non-adversarial advocacy techniques, legislative change, least restrictive environment, and extended school year services. The training also has various speakers including professors, attorneys, parents of children with disabilities, and advocates. Reading assignments of relevant laws and regulations accompany each class session.
- Linkage with four families:After graduating from the class (completing the 40 hours of instruction), each participant commits to working, at no cost, with four families of children with disabilities.
Expanding Across the State
The VAP has multiple sites across the state of Tennessee. The main site is in Nashville. From the Nashville site, the training is video-conferenced to other areas. In the past, the training has been video-conferenced to: Memphis, Martin, Mountain City, Jackson, Chattanooga, Cookeville, Crossville, Johnson City, Harrogate, Dickson, Bolivar, Mt. Juliet, Smyrna and Knoxville. For each region of the state, various agencies work with the volunteer advocates.
In order to participate in the training as a distance site, at least 3 participants per location must sign up. This promotes the development support networks throughout the state, in addition to training individuals.
Interested in the upcoming VAP training?
The next Volunteer Advocacy Project training will take place in Fall 2020. Due to COVID-19, the VAP will be completely remote this year via Zoom. The VAP will be held Monday mornings from 9:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. CST, starting Aug. 17 and ending Nov. 2. Stay tuned for more updates and registration.
Brittney Goscicki is a doctoral student in the Special Education-Low Incidence Disabilities program at Vanderbilt University. She has assisted with the Volunteer Advocacy Project since Fall of 2018. Prior to starting her doctoral program, Brittney was a self-contained special education teacher in New York City; she has taught grades 3-8 in a variety of classroom settings. Her research interests include improving both educational outcomes for students with severe disabilities and family quality of life for families of children with disabilities.
Ellen Casale is a doctoral student in the Special Education-Low Incidence Disabilities program at Vanderbilt University. She received her Education Specialist degree in autism spectrum disorders from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and her master’s degree in Special Education from Vanderbilt University. She has assisted with the Volunteer Advocacy Project since fall of 2016. Ellen has worked as a special education teacher in a variety of settings, in-home interventionist, autism specialist and diagnostician, and district special educational specialist. Ellen’s research interests include improving educational, behavioral and functional outcomes for individuals with severe disabilities.
Finding an Advocate
If you would like to request an advocate for a school-age child with disabilities, please call The Arc Tennessee at (800) 835-7077 or (615) 248-5878, ext. 306, or email SpecialEducation@thearctn.org. Please provide your name, phone number, and location (city/county). A representative will return your call during business hours from Monday to Friday. Representatives make every effort to return calls within 24 hours.
Prior to 1975, millions of children with disabilities were either entirely excluded or included in public schools to a limited degree. In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act mandating that public schools not only educate students with disabilities but also provide them with necessary supports and services. Embedded within this law is parental involvement. Congress wrote parents into the legislation in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities would have advocates in securing their rights to a free, appropriate, public education.
This act has been reauthorized several times since 1975, and in 1990, it was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Throughout all of these changes, parental involvement has remained and, in fact, been strengthened in the legislation. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to parents effectively advocating for their children with disabilities. For example, it is difficult for parents to learn their special education rights. The IDEA legislation is vast and dense. To have a solid working knowledge of it would require that parents stay updated on federal and state regulations and district interpretations of the law. In combination with the difficulty of learning the law, parents also have difficulty effectively advocating for their children with disabilities. It is difficult for parents to be assertive (not aggressive) in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with the school; the power differential between the parent and the school, the emotion involved in discussing your child, and feelings of inadequacy are just a few factors contributing to parents’ difficulty in advocating for their children with disabilities.