In this second installation of my column, meet veteran special education advocate, Aurelia Mack, CEO/founder of Wings of Success for Children with Special & Exceptional Needs Inc. Mack, a retired Department of Corrections officer, has sat on many boards, including RISE Life Services and Families Together of NYS. For the NYS Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, she worked as their first-ever family advisor for NYC, meeting with agencies’ top officials and politicians in Albany, advocating for programs geared to assist children with mental health and behavioral challenges. Mack has literally “done that, wrote the book” on breaking down walls to get special-needs students all the tools they need and deserve—to be the best they can be.
KLA: What led you to become a special education advocate?
AM: When my son was in fourth grade, he was falling behind in his school work. He had severe dyslexia, and the school wanted him to repeat his grade. I said, “No, you’re not keeping him back because you’re not giving him the services that he needs.” Retention doesn’t make sense for a child who can learn, but just has a specific learning disability. And that’s when I became a full-fledged advocate not just for my children and now, my grandchildren, but countless other children of families who are seeking direction. My son not only graduated high school and attended college, today he is in the National Guard. Anything is possible once you know your parental rights.
KLA: What are some essential rights of special-needs parents?
AM: Parents need to study the federal law, IDEA—Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities. Denial of FAPE is a violation, and that’s when the DOE (Department of Education) can owe you private school. Also, there is Child Find (CF), which applies to all kids, whether they are in public, private, Catholic or even homeschooled. Through CF, the DOE must identify, locate, and evaluate students who are failing academically and/or showing challenging behaviors. That’s how you win cases because when they don’t, they are in violation of their own federal laws. For young adults that no longer get an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), there is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a civil rights law, prohibiting discrimination based on disability, including for employment and access to governmental programs and services.
KLA: Does the DOE have the authority to diagnose your child with example, autism?
AM: Absolutely not! They cannot give an official diagnosis, or even conduct an evaluation without your permission. This is why I tell parents to be knowledgeable with the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder published by the American Psychiatric Association). It serves as the principal authority for classification and diagnosis of mental disorders. However, you must understand the difference between a classification versus a diagnosis. You want the diagnosis.
KLA: What if you know that your child is having difficulties at school. Their grades may be on par with their peers or even higher, but you observe setbacks with their communication and/or socialization abilities?
AM: The law says intelligence doesn’t have to be a factor for a child to get an IEP. Years ago, even now, the DOE would say, “gifted” or “high cognition” students don’t need an IEP. I’ve proved them wrong over and over again because the students still need support. I actually took the DOE to a hearing for my grandson because in city-wide tests, he scored 99.9%, but he had challenges with social skills or even not understanding basic directions. They refused to give him an IEP. So, I went to a hearing and we won. A lot of times they’re like, “We can’t give an IEP for counseling.” That’s not true. You have to challenge whatever you don’t agree with. Just because the DOE is not doing something now, doesn’t mean it should not be done. I always tell parents—you may have to be the one to change that law.
Readers, stay tuned for the continuation of this insightful Q&A with Aurelia Mack.
Join Rockaway Beach Autism Families next support group meeting on Thursday, November 17, 7 p.m. at Knights of Columbus, second floor meeting room. (333 Beach 90th Street). For info, visit: Rockaway Beach Families on Facebook/Instagram.