Special Ed Parents Dilemma: Battle for the System or Against It?

Parents of children in special education have a variety of responses to dealing with the Education Ministry in all its incarnations - from teacher to senior officials. Some get angry, some are confused, some become professionals in the details of treatments, with the responses impacted by the family's social and financial situation, as well as by the changing reality affecting their children. One factor never varies however: Parents pay the highest price for coping with the system.

While institutions like Income Tax and the National Insurance Institute make efforts to explain to the people what their rights and duties are clearly, the special education department's Internet site has referrals to other sites and organizations and a list of laws and regulations written in legalese.

"There is no list of parents' rights and no official in charge of giving parents information," says a former Education Ministry worker familiar with the decision-making process in special education. "There have been initiatives to improve the situation but they were never carried out," he says.

Ronit and Eran Flum of Rishon Letzion believe it is better to work with the education system. Their son, Ophir, is a high-functioning autistic child. Ophir, who is in 11th grade today, has always studied in special classes in regular schools.

"We tend to avoid conflict," says Eran. The Flums say they prefer working "behind the scenes", a little progress at a time. And yet they have had extraordinary accomplishments. They initiated opening a special class for high-functioning autistic children, first in junior high and then in the Rishon Letzion high school. They did not wait for the education system but enlisted its help. The class in Rishon now serves as a model for other towns in Israel.

"We've never come out against the system," says Ronit. "We made it clear we're on the same side, and that there is mutual respect. I always tell the teachers that I need them more than they need me. Some parents have to understand how the system works: I also wouldn't want someone to interfere with my work."

"We must determine the goals, where Ophir will progress to," says Eran. "We run a project called Ophir - and the teachers, with all due respect, are a passing episode."

Many officials, he says, think they're doing the parents a favor by letting them participate. "We inform them: you're working for us, not the other way around," says Eran.

Now that Ophir is in 11th grade, the Flums can seek cooperation with the Education Ministry while insisting on determining their son's future. This has not always been the case. When Ophir entered the fifth grade in Tel Aviv's Ussishkin school, they looked for a suitable class for seventh grade. They preferred a class offering personal support in a regular school, but at the time there were only two such classes, one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. Both were full, with a long waiting list.

After intense work, they organized a group of parents wishing to open another "communication class." Their hardest mission was to persuade the Education Ministry.

"I understood the ministry's fear of dealing with a group of parents, so I made sure I conducted the talks for the group," says Ronit. "All our arguments were well explained and backed with professional opinions. But it didn't work. Finally a "communication class" opened in Rishon Letzion, partly due to the support of the municipality, and eventually the Education Ministry came round.