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 on Monday mornings (9 a.m.-12 pm. CT) from Aug. 15 through Nov. 7 (class cancelled on Labor Day). The training will be conducted remotely via Zoom video conference platform. Each participant may log in from their personal device (e.g., cell phone, computer, etc.).
Requirements for participants include attending all 12 three-hour sessions and committing to advocate for at least four families of children with disabilities after completing the training. Cost for materials is $75.
Click here to complete the application to participate in the Fall 2022 VAP cohort. Applications are due by July 20. After applications are processed, you will receive an email with registration and payment information. To request a paper application or get more information, email Allie Green at VolAP@vanderbilt.edu.
- Allie Green is a master's student in the Special Education-Low Incidence program at Vanderbilt University. Allie also attended Vanderbilt for her undergraduate studies in special education. She started assisting with the Volunteer Advocacy Project in the fall of 2021. Her current research interests include education and training in special education law and policies for school personnel.
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.