Supporting children with disabilities at school: implications for the advocate role in professional practice and education

Ng, S. Lingard, L. Hibbert, K. Regan, S., Phelan, S., Stooke, R., Meston, C., Schryer, C. , Manamperi, M. and Friesen, F.

Purpose: School settings are a common practice context for rehabilitation professionals; health advocacy is a common and challenging practice role for professionals in this context. This study explored how pediatric practitioners advocate for children with disabilities at school. Specifically, we examined everyday advocacy in the context of school-based support for children with disabilities. Method: Our theoretical framework and methodological approach were informed by institutional ethnography, which maps and makes visible hidden social coordinators of work processes with a view to improving processes and outcomes. We included families, educators, and health/rehabilitation practitioners from Ontario. Of the 37 consented informants, 27 were interviewed and 15 observed. Documents and texts were collected from the micro-level (e.g. clinician reports) and the macro-level (e.g. policies). Results: Pediatric practitioners’ advocacy work included two main work processes: spotlighting invisible disabilities and orienteering the special education terrain. Practitioners advocated indirectly, by proxy, with common proxies being documents and parents. Unintended consequences of advocacy by proxy included conflict and inefficiency, which were often unknown to the practitioner. Conclusions: The findings of this study provide practice-based knowledge about advocacy for children with disabilities, which may be used to inform further development of competency frameworks and continuing education for pediatric practitioners. The findings also show how everyday practices are influenced by policies and social discourses and how rehabilitation professionals may enact change.Implications for Rehabilitation

  • Rehabilitation professionals frequently perform advocacy work. They may find it beneficial to perform advocacy work that is informed by overarching professional and ethical guidelines, and a nuanced understanding of local processes and structures.

  • Competency frameworks and education for pediatric rehabilitation professionals may be improved by: encouraging professionals to consider how their practices, including their written documents, may affect parental burden, (mis)interpretation by document recipients, and potential unintended consequences.

  • Policies and texts, e.g. privacy legislation and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), influence rehabilitation professionals’ actions and interactions when supporting children with disabilities at school.

  • An awareness of the influence of policies and texts may enable practitioners to work more effectively within current systems when supporting individuals with disabilities.

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