An Unanticipated Encounter with a Disability

by Mary Noe

When my son was born he was perfect.  He would grow into an adorable little boy and walk and talk and seemed like every other little boy.  However in first grade I would learn that my son had a disability – a learning disability.  At a meeting with the school’s special education director, school psychologist and teacher I tried to understand what they were talking about when they told me my son was “wired” differently.  He could not learn in the same way as other students.   I remember thinking the use of the word “wired” was absurd to describe what goes on inside the brain.  I sat and listened.  I left and cried.  There were years of those meetings, resource room, extended time for tests and my own private paid tutor.  My son plodded along with little success.  After years of frustration for both my son and me, I needed to change the formula because it was not working.  The first stop was an outside psycho-educational evaluation.  I learned that besides having a learning disability similar to dyslexia he also had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  It seems that disabilities often run in pairs.  I learned of a reading program to address his learning disability and both medication and learned compensatory skills could address ADD.  Once I became armed with information and knowledge I became a participant at the subsequent meetings and not just an observer.  I managed to get the help my son needed.

Nationally, approximately seven million students are classified with a disability and receive special-education services.   The Federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines thirteen specific disabilities.


It is a daunting task for a parent to work through a child’s disability.  First, the parents’ emotional reaction is difficult to appreciate unless you have stood in those shoes.  Then there is a tangled web of trying to understand the nature of their child’s disability, how the disability affects the child’s ability to learn and the educational programs and services available to address the unique needs of the child.  Finally, parents must try to navigate the Special Education system, which involves education, State regulations and Federal laws.  While parents are trying to manage all of this, the clock continues to tick while their son or daughter may be languishing in school.


The first step is for a parent to request their child be evaluated.  Parents need to keep their own records of their child’s progress in school and ability to complete homework.   A complete medical examination is necessary.  Once a disability is identified, parents can obtain information from doctors, specialists, teachers, family, friends and research the web regarding the nature of the disability and an educational plan to address the specific disability.


The next step is for the parent to read the evaluations prior to attending a meeting with the school district.  The initial evaluations are the following:

  1. a physical examination that is performed by the child’s medical doctor
  2. a psycho-educational evaluation is done by the school psychologist
  3. a social history is a report from the part of the child’s academic needs
  4. an observation of the child in the classroom

There are other disability specific evaluations such as speech and language or occupational therapy to assess the student’s specific disability.

Evaluations that properly reflect the student’s strength and weaknesses are the essential part of the process.   If the evaluations are inaccurate, the parent can request new or additional evaluations and perhaps independent evaluations at the school district’s expense.   If the evaluations are accurate, the parent can then proceed to explore the services or program the student needs to assure meaningful progress.


The law is clear that the education provided to the student with a disability need not be the “best” education but rather one that is appropriate so that the student can make progress.

The Federal government provides funding to all public schools that provide children classified with a disability with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).  The student’s educational program and/or related services are memorialized in the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP).

In order for parents to be proactive, they need an understanding of the process and how they can contribute so as to be an effective advocate for their child.

Mary Noe received her B.A. (magna cum laude) from Brooklyn College and the J.D. from St. John’s University.  She is a former Administrative Law Judge for the Office of Professional Medical Conduct in the NY State Department of Education.
She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Criminal Justice and Legal Studies program of St. John’s University, College of Professional Studies, and is an Adjunct Professor teaching Special Education law in St. John’s University School of Law.

Professor Noe has 12 years of experience as an Impartial Hearing Officer for the NY State Department of Education, and presides over cases in Special Education pursuant to the Federal Law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Professor Noe is a regular contributor to Outside Counsel column, New York Law Journal and other journals.

She has written a book, IEP Workshop: Building Teacher-Parent Partnerships with an instructional DVD that provides a visual guide for parents. For more information go to her website.