TAMPA, Fla. — To Councilman Luis Viera, the struggle of families who have children with disabilities is personal. His older brother, Juan, has an intellectual disability.
Juan is part of the inspiration behind Viera’s mission to help others during a town hall meeting Monday night.
“Well, this is a town hall that’s being done to respond to the needs of families raising children with special needs in the Tampa area,” Viera said. “It’s an idea I came up with to try to respond to the many needs that these families have — whether raising children with autism, cerebral palsy, an intellectual disability, Down syndrome.”
The meeting will be held at the Martin Luther King Center at 2200 N. Oregon Ave. in Tampa. There will be an open house to help connect parents to resources from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. A panel discussion will follow with experts from groups like Disability Rights Florida from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Viera will moderate.
According to a flyer, the meeting will give parents information on “advocating for your child’s Individualized Education Plan.”
A federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) guarantees that students with intellectual and developmental disabilities get a free, public education, however, Viera and other advocates say making sure those educations are meaningful can be tricky.
Parents help school districts draw up Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, for their children with disabilities.
“These are the evaluations that you get year by year, and point by point in a child’s and student’s educational development,” Viera said. “Where that child goes next in their education is dictated a lot by that IEP.”
An IEP sets goals for a student and ultimately determines how he or she is taught and in what type of classroom setting.
Disability advocate Karen Clay said it can be a tough process — even a fight — to negotiate an agreeable IEP.
“It is probably one of the most important documents that a child with a disability will have in schools,” said Clay. “I think parents are going to learn very early on that they are their child’s best advocate, and unless they can afford an attorney, they’ve got to learn how to do this themselves.”
Clay will be one of the panelists at the Monday night town hall meeting. Her late son, Michael Phillips, had a neuromuscular disorder, and she hopes to help other parents advocate for their children, in the same manner, that she did for her son.
“Parents with children with disabilities have to be the most prepared and the most organized. For some, it’s easy. For others, it’s just more difficult. It’s adding another thing to their plate,” said Clay.
According to the latest state data online, "the number of Florida students with disabilities (SWD) was 406,944, or 14.6% in 2020-2021."