Andrew Meltzer is a Special Education Attorney with Sussan, Greenwald & Wesler.
What can be done, both short long term, to make the web of programs and institutions that make up the post-transition disability experience easier to navigate?
There are a couple of different approaches. For one, there needs to be much more transition planning at the school district level to advise parents on what DDD and other agencies do, and what they can provide. Districts are charged under the law with doing transition planning. However, that doesn’t always happen as much as it should. We help families with transition planning in school districts. Additionally, its important to collaborate with school districts. DDD needs to get involved earlier in the process. There should be more communication, more events, more information about what they can provide. Furthermore, we need to hear more from key stakeholders. That includes the state legislature, Governor Murphy, and DHS (Department of Human Services). They need to listen to parents and individuals - about what their experiences and problems are, in order to streamline the process. They have their feet on the ground, and we need maximum participation from them.
One big victory borne from that process was the out-of-state residential program fight. Governor Christie tried to bring every individual in out-of-state residential placements back to New Jersey, which would have caused massive disruptions to families and lives. Families spoke with their legislatures, testified in committee meetings, and they reached a compromise. As a result, many people were able to stay in those out-of-state placements. They was that concerned citizens worked with their legislators. Elected officials are often eager to help, but they need to know what is going on. Those in the legal and political worlds and consumers themselves can form strong alliances.
What changes, whether they be legal, policy, or social and cultural changes like shifts popular attitude would you most like to see in the coming years and decades?
In special education, we need to focus on what the Supreme Court said - that IEP’s need to be ‘appropriately ambitious.’ Following that ruling will help create change. It reinforces that disabilities are not burdensome - that people learn differently, and have unique abilities. With the right supports, that can make a huge difference. We also need more funding for special education. IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) has not been fully funded in years. And this becomes a problem because school districts often use budgetary reasons to deny services. The law doesn’t care about budgets, but it becomes a big issue in practice.
School districts can do more. If a student has behaviors, realizing that there could be many reasons for those behaviors is important. Many schools have policies such as automatic disciplinary measures - which are harmful. Districts can look to see if there is an undiagnosed disability. The DOE (Department of Education) can go into these districts and oversee that. This is a key strategy to reducing the school to prison pipeline.
We also need better transition planning for the post 21 experience. The focus should be on the continuation of what special education calls for: ambitious programs that emphasize people’s abilities. To build on their independence and increase contribution to society, and maximize their contributions.
Another cause I’m very involved in is mental health reform. A lot of young people that suffer from mental illness don’t get treatment or even diagnoses. A lot of mental illness manifests between ages 18 and 24. And often times, services can’t be provided because people don’t know they are ill, and as a result they fall through the cracks. This is another cause that we need to look at seriously.
This quote is located on your web page: "My goal is to help special needs students attain the success in school and life they are capable of through my advocacy." I wanted to talk about that word, advocacy. What does advocacy mean to you, and what advice would you give to people who want to get involved disability advocacy, but don’t know how.
To me, advocacy is the ability to reject the status quo, to stand up for what you believe in and not accept that things will always remain the same. Everyone advocates in different ways. It could be something as small as not getting the right amount of change in a purchase, or something as large as being discriminated against. Advocacy does not just extend to the individual; it goes further than that. People who lack the ability to speak for themselves, they have teams that work with them. There are legal routes with attorneys, there are special needs parent groups, advisory groups to government agencies.
Stand up for yourself and others, and push for things to be changed. There’s a lot that needs to be changed, and its up to people, elected officials, organizations - really everybody - to create something different.