Special education in Asian American communities

In New York City schools, approximately 200,000 are eligible for special education. Unfortunately, students with disabilities are not receiving the services necessary to meet their needs. The Department of Education frequently fails to provide timely evaluations to children and place them in the proper classroom setting. They also deny or fail to provide services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, and counseling, and overlook the specific and particular needs of children in special education in setting priorities for their education. As a result, parents of children who are eligible for special education are left on their own with the daunting task of advocating for their children’s education in an unfamiliar, convoluted, and opaque system.

There are more than 12,000 Asian students receiving special education services in NYC schools, and yet Asian American youth with disabilities are often underrepresented in discussions about special education because they confront the “model minority” myth that makes it more difficult for them to get the recognition and help they need, and as a result, their problems are more often ignored. There is also the challenge of conflicting sentiment by some Asian families against providing special education to their children with disabilities, assuming that once they choose special education for their children, they become labeled unfavorably in the community. Even those families whose children receive services face hurdles as it is not uncommon for them to be limited English proficient and their difficulty in communicating with the school adds an additional hardship in their ability to effectively advocate for their child’s needs. This combination of language and cultural barriers can make access to these services harder to obtain and suggest that the needs of the community are being systematically overlooked by advocates.

As an education attorney at Legal Services NYC, I provide direct legal services to parents of children with disabilities to help them obtain the special education services they need to succeed in school. I am also the co-chair of the Education Committee at NYCLA, and in the course of our work on education issues, we as members of the committee have continually sought to ask ourselves what kind of education related issues are of interest to other attorneys and advocates.

Last year, I began conducting outreach with a community based organization in Flushing, and quickly realized that there was an unmet need for education advocacy in the Chinese community. My colleague, Nelson Mar, an education attorney in the Bronx, and a member of NYCLA, had noticed a similar trend in his advocacy of low-income Asian families. His client, L.R., was a seven-year-old boy with a disability attending a school in the Bronx. His mother was concerned that her son was not speaking much either at school or at home. Teachers at L.R.’s school would tell his mother that it was likely L.R. just didn’t care for talking and that it was not a big deal for boys to be shy; however, what they failed to notice was that he was not making any academic progress, or that his reticence to talk resulted from his being bullied by other classmates. With Nelson’s help, L.R. successfully filed suit against the Department of Education for its denial to provide him with appropriate educational services, and the DOE was required to pay for a private school for L.R. that had a program to address his speech impairment. According to his mother, “he has made huge progress” in his ability to communicate, and learn, since his placement at the private school.

Successes like L.R., and our work with community advocates in Flushing, have led Nelson and me to create a pro bono initiative which partners Asian American affinity groups in law firms and volunteers from the Asian American Bar Association to represent affected parents at special education hearings and/or provide advice and counsel. With legal services organizations chronically underfunded, pro bono attorneys can play an outsized role in securing justice for families of children with special needs.
As Nelson noted, “In the area of special education, results are very different with lawyers’ help and with the help of advocates. Good special education programs can bring a bright future to children with disabilities.” The hope is that this project will help families like L.R. and ensure that Asian American students can obtain the special education services to which they are entitled under the law.

If you know a community based organization that works within the Asian American community, and would benefit from a training on special education, please email nmar@lsnyc.org or aleipziger@lsnyc.org, or you have a contact that you believe might need some special education advocacy in the Asian American community, please contact the Legal Services NYC hotline at (917) 661-4500, Monday-Friday 10:00 am- 4:00 pm.

Amy Leipziger is a Co-Chair of NYCLA’s Education Law Committee.  Amy is a Senior Staff Attorney at Queens Legal Services with the Education Rights and Disability Advocacy Projects, and can be reached at aleipziger@qls.ls-nyc.org.  


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