Monday, November 22, 2010

Advocacy 101: How to Write an Effective Letter

Caitlin Wray

Odds are at some point in your role as your child's advocate, you will need to write a letter to the powers that be. A masterfully crafted letter can be an incredibly powerful weapon in an advocate's arsenal, but it’s often not an intuitive process; there are unwritten rules and unspoken expectations that need to be addressed, if you're to achieve maximum effectiveness.

I've spent much of my professional -- and personal -- life drafting letters that are designed to effect meaningful changes; it's one of my favourite things to do (yes, I'm geeky that way). To help you find  effective ways to word your own letters, here are some suggestions, along with examples from letters I've written as my son’s advocate:

First make sure you are writing to the most useful and appropriate person. Do your research before deciding to whom you will address the letter, using the Internet to look into the government departments and agencies you should be targeting. Politics and protocol are involved – if you send your letter to the wrong department, it could take months to get rerouted to the right one. If you aim too low in the department, your letter may literally go nowhere because the person you sent it to is clueless about its proper destination. If you aim too high, you may offend and lose the support of the person who should have heard your concerns first.

Once you know who you're addressing, open with a powerful paragraph that demands attention, and sums up the key issues. It should also touch on that person's significance in terms of impact on your family/child. Don’t belabour your points here, just touch on them, in the order your letter will deal with them. For example:
We are currently in the midst of a very challenging situation as we try to secure funding for an Educational Assistant (EA) for our young autistic son who endured a heartbreaking incident at school in November of last year. This letter is an appeal for your help.
Be respectful, but firm. Use language that affirms and legitimizes your concerns, not language that undermines or apologizes for them. For example:

However it is completely unacceptable that, after being put into this position by the atrocious treatment our son received at school, and then doing our best to start all the necessary processes to find the right educational environment for him, we should find  all options closed off by a deadline. We are well-versed in the need for deadlines. We are also very familiar with the need for deadline exceptions.
Limit yourself, if possible, to no more than three key points; any more may lose  impact. While you may have literally dozens of concerns, be realistic in your expectation that they’ll all be addressed. The goal is not to merely complain, but to effect change. So focus on your absolute top priorities – the ones that will have the greatest impact for your child.

Find ways to illustrate how your expectations will benefit not only your child, but the recipient of your letter (or those they are responsible for) as well. Build bridges, don’t burn them, no matter how angry you may be. For example:

Not all children need special consideration, many fare very well on their own. But Simon does require special consideration. As his parents we have done everything we could, with what we knew of the system, to follow the official process for finding him the right school. All we are asking is for the opportunity to review, with the Division, which schools may be the best fit for Simon’s academic and social-emotional well-being. Surely this is in the best interest of everyone – the Division, its schools and teachers included.
Be honest in your accounts and don’t exaggerate (or understate) the facts. For example:
This was very distressing for our family, at a time when I had recently lost my mother to cancer and shortly after gave birth to Simon’s baby brother. We could not convince his teacher that there must be something underlying Simon’s behaviour, that he did not simply have a “behaviour problem.” The Principal understood our concerns and repeatedly directed Simon’s teacher to work with us, but to no avail.
Conclude with a clear, succinct summary of what you expect will happen in response to your letter, and why your expectations are legitimate. And if applicable, why they are legally required. Know your child’s legal rights and the legislation and regulations governing the department you are approaching. All of that information is available online. In the US, is considered a one-stop shop for legal information on special needs education. In Canada, provincial Department of Education websites are the best source for this information.

In time-sensitive or controversial situations (e.g., I recently read a parent board post from a mother who discovered her autistic son had his mouth taped shut at school) don’t be afraid to state explicitly what your next steps will be if your expectations are not met. Be careful not to use language that sounds overtly threatening. Instead, use language that depicts you as a competent, determined parent who means business.

End with a cordial but official salutation, such as “Thank you in advance for attending to this important matter” or “We thank you in advance for your much-needed assistance in this important and time-sensitive matter.”

Be sure to know the appropriate people to copy or cc: on your letter. This includes those you feel should be aware of the issues you are addressing, such as your child’s school principal or superintendent, psychologist, pediatrician, heads of related departments, your OT, etc. The extra effort it takes to copy people from other departments is often worthwhile, as government departments do talk to each other, and if one department is worried about the fallout for themselves, they will often pressure the other deparatment to rectify the situation expeditiously.

Always keep a copy of your outgoing and incoming correspondence.

If you don’t receive a response -- written or otherwise -- within two weeks, follow up with a phone call indicating that you will be asking to speak with that person’s immediate superior if you do not receive a response within the next week. Always maintain a calm, firm, and professional manner on the phone. The last thing you want is to be known as a “wacko mother” in the department or agency you are trying to engage. No matter how frustrated you become, and even if you are reduced to tears, always communicate in a rational way to effect the greatest change.

Letters really do result in meaningful changes. The pen is mightier than the sword in our ongoing efforts to communicate our children's needs, and rights, especially to those who hold our children's futures in their hands. Don't let important decisions be made without your input, and don't be afraid to write a letter. The cost of a stamp may be one of the greatest investments you'll ever make.