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The Identification and Evaluation of Disability

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The special education process begins with a formal evaluation of a child's need. Evaluations can be initiated by parents, teachers or other school staff who suspect that a child's educational success is being affected by a disability described by any of IDEA's 13 disability categories.

Parents May Request an Evaluation

hand dialing on phoneParents who wish their child to be evaluated need to call their child's school and ask to speak with the special education coordinator. At that point, the parents can identify themselves and their child, share their concerns about their child, and ask about the school's evaluation process. It is important that parents follow up any verbal conversation they have by sending a written letter, clearly dated and addressed to the special education coordinator highlighting the reason for concern and formally requesting an evaluation take place. It is doubly important that a copy of that letter be kept as a record of that communication.

The reason for sending the letter and retaining a copy is to establish an organized record documenting all requests and communications that occur during the special education process. Having this record aids parents in pursuing their new and very important role as the primary advocates for their child's educational needs. The process of identifying, evaluating, and receiving services for a disability is a lengthy one with many steps along the way. The IDEA describes the rights and responsibilities of parents, their children, and schools but this doesn't mean that the school will always do everything they are supposed to do in a timely manner. Parents must begin to use more written communication so that they have paper documentation of their requests and concerns. Every communication should be dated because many part of the IDEA refers to specific deadlines that must be met by the school system once formal requests have been made. These paper records are the basis for moving things along through what amounts to a bureaucratic process, demonstrating that all legal requirements have been met, and creating a transferable record which will prove helpful should the child switch schools. Without documentation to prove that requests have been made on particular dates, parents become less effective advocates for their children.

Many schools may try to suggest some preliminary interventions be undertaken with the child before completing the full special education evaluation. For example, adjustments to how the school and the parents communicate, tutoring, and a behavior incentive plan may be suggested. School staff may want to try these measures for weeks or months before starting an actual evaluation. For some children these efforts may result in a significant improvement in functioning. However, many more children need more intensive intervention, and prolonging these initial and unregulated intervention attempts may only delay children from receiving the services they actually need. Parents have the right to insist that the evaluation be scheduled. Here again, having an organized record of all communications comes in handy. Parents will be less effective in asserting their right to a timely evaluation if they cannot produce a record of having making a formal request on a specific date on demand.