Becoming a Self Advocate for Your Individualized Education Program (IEP) – Part 1 of 2

This is the first of a two-part blog post that provides guidance and resources for youth on how to get involved and take a lead in their own Individualized Education Program (IEP).  In today’s blog, guest blogger Emalie Fogg reflects on some of her personal experiences with the IEP process and explains some of the basics youth need to know about what  IEPs are, why students with disabilities have them, and what it’s like to be involved in the IEP planning process. 

The cover image of the "Navigating Your IEP" guide by the Florida Youth Council is shown. The cover image includes a compass and an old-fashioned navigational map.

"Navigating Your IEP" (cover image is shown) is a resource from the Florida Youth Council written by youth for youth. This guide is online at:

If you are a student with a disability who attends public school in the United States, you have most likely heard the term Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a document that your school, your parents and family members, and you create and update together each year to make sure your school experience is helping you achieve your educational goals and prepare for success in life. The IEP is required for students with disabilities by an important federal law in the world of education and students with disabilities – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Because the IEP is all about you – your goals and what you need to be successful – it’s important for you to take a lead and actively participate in creating and using your IEP. This blog answers some questions you may have about the IEP and describes how to participate in the process.

Why do students with disabilities have IEPs?

As I mentioned, the IEP is a requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that applies to all schools. The IDEA law was first passed in 1975 under the name, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Before this law passed, many children and youth with disabilities did not have the option to attend public school due to state laws that prevented students with certain disabilities from attending. As a result, many children and youth were secluded in their homes while their peers attended school or they were housed in large institutions (special homes or schools for children with disabilities) where the education they received was often of poor quality. At the same time, those students with disabilities who did attend public schools were not provided any specific support or services to help them do their best at school. (Learn more about disability history and the creation and evolution of IDEA.)

Many people who had disabilities, families with children with disabilities, and other disability advocates worked hard to change this by advocating for new laws to protect the rights of all individuals with disabilities to receive a quality education in public schools. As a result of the disability advocates’ efforts, Congress passed the 1975 law which requires that all public schools provide a free appropriate public education to all students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment possible. This law created the requirement that all students with disabilities have an IEP.

In 1990, the law was updated and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; however, its principles remain the same and the IEP is a cornerstone of those principles. The IEP serves as the roadmap that schools, families, and students use to plan and deliver a quality education to students with disabilities. Since the IEP is so individualized – with plans specific to each student’s unique goals and needs – it is crucial that each student participate in his or her IEP planning process.

What is it like to participate in an IEP meeting?

You should always be invited to participate in your own IEP meetings, starting at whatever age the team and you feel is appropriate. I remember my first time participating in my own IEP planning process. It was a meeting to discuss my transition from third to fourth grade.  I waited anxiously in a hallway in a deserted elementary school for my parents to call me in to speak in front of all the adults who made up my support team in school. All through my school years this team included my parents, a special education case manager, at least one of my general education teachers (often more than that), physical therapists, occupational therapists and the director of special education for my district. My parents and I got to know each of these people intimately throughout my 15 years of school (I completed three years of preschool to compensate for my motor skill deficits).

Some of the things that your school, family, and you will talk about in IEP meetings include:

  •  How you’re doing in school including what you’re good at, things you may be struggling with, your current academic and skill levels, and test results
  • What things the school is doing or will do to help you be successful (some of these things are called accommodations and modifications)
  • Previous goals  and future goals for your education and plans for life after high school
  • What classes and activities you will be participating in for the coming year to help you achieve your goals
  • How everyone will track your progress on your goals

If not earlier, you should begin participating in your IEP meeting no later than age 16. That is the age at which IDEA requires that transition planning – preparing for your life after high school – become a part of the IEP. This crucial time of transition is a time for you to explore careers and postsecondary education options relevant to your goals for life after high school.

When we began planning for my transition out of high school into college, my career goal at that time was to become a teacher. To help me reach that goal, I met and began working with a Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) counselor. My VR counselor helped me choose a college major and offered financial assistance that would help me reach my goal. Along with this long term goal, my IEP team and I set smaller short term goals related to the larger goal of attending college and becoming a teacher. One of my short term goals was to score well on the SAT in order to get into my college of choice. Because math was always difficult for me, it was decided that I would take a math class for no credit to help increase my math score. It is important to note that while my long term career goal changed (I am not a teacher today), my college degree did help me to secure successful employment.

You can learn more about what happens during the IEP meeting and how to prepare and participate from the guide, “Navigating Your IEP.” This guide was written for youth by youth and young adults who are members of the Florida Youth Council. This guide explains more about when and where meetings typically take place, who attends and what each person’s role is, and what things the participants discuss and decide upon during the meeting. The guide also provides guidance for your own participation in the meeting including some things to think about before the meeting and things to do during and after the meeting.

In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll look at why it’s important to be a leader and self advocate in your own IEP process and how to get involved if you’re not already. Stay tuned!

Share your own experience or questions about being involved in the IEP process with us and other readers. Please leave a comment.

Written by guest blogger Emalie Fogg, a past Patricia Morrissey Disability Policy Fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership.  Emalie currently works as an administrative assistant at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of External Affairs in Washington, D. C.

About NCWD Youth

NCWD/Youth works to ensure that transition age youth are provided full access to high quality services in integrated settings to gain education, employment, and independent living.

This entry was posted in Accommodations, Career Preparation, Disability History, Education, Parents & Families, Self Advocacy, Transition, Youth Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.