A Community Culture of Advocacy

. May 8, 2020.
Heather Eckner, executive director of A2IDEAS Photo Credit: Eckner
Heather Eckner, executive director of A2IDEAS Photo Credit: Eckner

A2IDEAS promotes education, advocacy, and inclusion for all

When my son was eight years old, he attended his own IEP (individualized education plan). Aware of his diagnosis of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), he was encouraged to be a part of the goal-setting process at school.  We were told that he was the youngest student ever to attend an IEP meeting. 

The concept of children being self-advocates is still in its infancy.  Advocacy starts with parents, but many children don’t have the resources or support to become their own advocates.

Heather Eckner, an educator and parent of a child with special needs, is addressing the issue with the non-profit organization A2IDEAS (Ann Arbor Individual Disability Education Advocacy Services) with a  mission “to support individuals with disabilities and their families.”

A2IDEAS origin story

With a master’s degree in education, Eckner has extensive experience with the special education system. Her husband is a physician who works with the disability population. Despite their backgrounds, the stress of attending IEP meetings for their son is very real.

“It’s overwhelming. You’re far outnumbered. You’re on the same team, but nobody thinks about your kid like you do,” Eckner recalls. She has a memory of looking over at her husband at an IEP meeting and saying, “If it is like this for us, what is everybody else feeling?” 

Recognizing a real need for family education and empowerment, Eckner founded A2IDEAS in 2017. “The number of barriers for families is incredible. I recognize that and am trying to help.” 

Changing how we view labels

When your child is given a diagnosis, there is a real fear that the label will stigmatize your child. Eckner agrees that “words matter” and provides an idea for how to look at labels differently.

“In order to access services in systems, you have to qualify. A ‘label’ can instead be referred to as ‘eligibility.’ To access school-based services, you need to meet the eligibility criteria. Once eligibility has been determined, you can stop thinking about labels and begin focusing on the support needed for your child.”

Inclusion for all 

While support for inclusivity is on the rise, the reality is that certain groups are still very stigmatized, especially those with cognitive impairments. This disparity has its roots in the “medical model” perspective on intelligence (there’s a deficit: let’s fix it), but progressive thinkers, like Eckner, continue to advocate for a “social model”, viewing disability as “a natural part of the human condition.” 

Differences are not meant to be fixed, but rather to be embraced and integrated into society. This thinking requires a cultural shift. A2IDEAS  leads the way with a vision for “universal supports that value equity, dignity, and independence for all people.”

For more information and support, visit A2IDEAS.org
or call
734-707-1896.

 

Advocacy Support & Training (AsSisT) Program available for local families

A2IDEAS is currently piloting a year-long program that provides face-to-face training for families on how to navigate the special education system and become strong advocates for their own children. 

To learn more, visit a2ideas.org/programs-services or email info@a2ideas.org.

Ensuring Meaningful Participation

Eckner encourages “meaningful participation.” To help determine whether your child is being included in meaningful ways, she suggests asking the following questions: 

  • Is this appropriate? 
  • Is this the least restrictive alternative? 
  • Is my child ‘belonging’?