I knew that I would choose a career helping others at a young age. Every job that I have held involved caring for others. I started to babysit in my neighborhood at 10 years old, creating my own “Babysitter’s Club” after reading a book series. I then went onto work at a childcare center through high school, was a nanny for various families, and worked with children living with Autism while in college.
After graduating, I became an Academic Counselor at University but missed helping the disabled population so shifted to a Disability Services Advisor role. I absolutely loved it and had found my calling helping students overcome obstacles and getting the best education possible. A promotion came quickly, and I was soon leading a team of Disability Service Advisors. The decade that I spent as a manager of Disability Services in higher education allowed me to work with thousands of students living with disabilities, and I was in awe of their accomplishments barring the obstacles they had in life. We spent our days setting up accommodations to even the playing field for them, while listening to their stories and they will be remembered always. I had a student who earned two degrees without limbs. I talked mentally ill students through the depths of their despair, advising on how to get through that week in their course. I mapped out countless graduation plans for those who were told they were not “college material” by uninformed people in their lives. I celebrated right along with every student who passed college algebra with dyscalculia (math learning disability).
My team had the challenging job of holding the university’s staff, faculty, and administration accountable to disability rights laws. We trained, coached, met, updated, and trained some more. I was part of the Association for Higher Education and Disability (a national organization) and met some “greats” of Disability Rights, who I am now honored to call friends. Presenting at AHEAD was a highlight, but the most important thing I learned at all of my years of conferences was to choose words wisely. Words alone can make or break a team decision and the possible outcome for a student- up to and including graduation. I learned that my entire University was learning inclusion, disability rights, and how to help students from these words—so they needed to be chosen carefully.
I personally identified with my students, as I had had medical problems after a major car accident, and now have a child living with disabilities. My disability compliance background helped me navigate the special education system for him (he was in kindergarten at the time) and we eventually created an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for him. During this time I saw the need for educational advocacy in K-12, as I had over a decade of experience and felt the system was difficult to navigate initially. Parents are often expected to know exacting words to request assessments, services, and support for their children but these words and processes were not made known. We are often in uncharted territory, trying to get through the medical side of the disability (not to mention parenting a high needs child) and adding the education system without much guidance is too large of a hurdle to endure alone.
I decided to “be the change” I wanted to see in the K-12 special education setting, and left my position at the University to create SMW Consulting & Advocacy, LLC. There is a high need for special education advocates, and I have been keeping busy helping families in Arizona and remotely. I offer 504/IEP meeting support and consultation, navigation of the special education system and laws, training and education to families, and life coaching to the community touched by disability. The lessons I learned in my past work have fueled my approach of choosing words carefully, keeping the student at the center of what I do, and striving to share knowledge as I work with the families that trust me in helping them find a better education for their child. I hope to do the same for you.
Best wishes and carefully chosen words, Shannon
SMW Consulting & Advocacy, LLC.