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Back to School with Section 504 and the ADA

Wiggins Childs Pantazis Fisher and Goldfarb, LLC takes great pride in the diversity of our representation. One of these areas involves the representation of children with disabilities in securing non-discriminatory placements as well as a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and other services, in accordance with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1400, et. seq., Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), 29 U.S.C. 794, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. 12101 et. seq. Deborah Mattison works with Rachel McGinley to assure that such children receive the individualized instruction and related services to which they are entitled. Attorneys Mattison and McGinley’s practice also includes other related matters involving children with disabilities and their families, such as redressing harassment, bullying, and other discrimination.


Attorney Mattison’s legal background is unique. Upon graduating from the Antioch School of Law in 1980 in Michigan with a focus in social justice, Mattison worked for Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, a private non-profit agency dedicated to protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Ultimately Mattison became the Legal Director for the agency. There she focused on social justice issues involving persons with disabilities. In addition to her advocacy related to the deinstitutionalization of persons with developmental disabilities, she worked to stop the practice of sterilizating persons with disabilities without their consent. Mattison also worked to assist parents secure appropriate educational placements; and she was involved in cases aimed at preventing the use of aversive behavioral interventions, such as contingent electronic shock on children with special needs. In 1993, Mattison was presented with a House and a Senate Resolution from the Michigan Legislature honoring her work in these areas.


In 1993, Mattison moved to Birmingham. Prior to moving, Ms. Mattison searched for the firm in Alabama which was best-suited to enable her to continue working on behalf of children and adults with disabilities. After meeting with several firms, Mattison joined the Wiggins Childs team because of its historic track record supporting social justice. The ADA had just been enacted and Mattison began representing employees with disabilities in employment disputes, while continuing to represent children. Mattison’s work representing children has been praised by other attorneys, including those representing school districts, and by federal judges.

McGinley shares Mattison’s commitment to social justice. After graduating from law school at the University of Alabama, McGinley worked for Legal Services of Alabama, providing free legal representation in civil matter for individuals with low incomes. She joined Wiggins Childs in 2007 and has advocated on behalf individuals in employment discrimination matters as well as in the area of education. McGinley says one of the more rewarding aspects of her practice with Mattison is the ability to give a voice to the under-served and under-appreciated members of our community.


The current primary focus of attorneys Mattison and McGinley is representing the parents of children with disabilities in order to assist in securing a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) for the student. According to Mattison and McGinley, most parents come to Wiggins Childs because they feel “something is wrong” with their child’s educational program and they feel they are not being heard by the school district. There are few attorneys in Alabama practicing on behalf of parents in school matters; and these cases typically are highly technical, requiring a good understanding of both the law and the pedagogy appropriate to serve children with differing abilities. Some common examples of the issues they deal with include:


• The failure of schools to identify children with disabilities;
• A lack of comprehensive evaluations—which makes it hard to develop an appropriate educational program;
• Children with behavior problems who lack sufficient positive behavioral support;
• Children with autism, who do not have remedial services to address their condition; and,
• Children with reading disorders who lack a remedial reading program designed to meet their unique needs.


Mattison and McGinley explain that this type of legal work typically involves an extensive review of a student’s records, communication with the district and parent to determine each parties’ objectives, securing any needed assessments and, hopefully, working with a school district to design an appropriate program. In the event that a case cannot be resolved, IDEA and Section 504 contain strong procedural safeguards for parents, including the right to a due process hearing and an appeal, generally to federal court. Both Mattison and McGinley have had to pursue formal remedies to secure their clients’ objectives.

After 38 years of practice, Deb Mattison’s working philosophy is uniquely constructive:


“Educating children with disabilities is hard work. We did not– as a society– routinely attempt this endeavor until IDEA and Section 504 were passed in the mid 1970s. There is still far too little funding for education and, frankly, the research as to ‘what works’ can be lacking as it relates to certain disabilities. In my experience, the vast majority of educators are hard working caring professionals. I believe that most educators would be excited to better serve children if they had the resources and/or had access to better methodology. I see my job as trying to identify the weakness and strengths in a child’s program and then to secure the resources necessary to assist both my clients and the educators in delivering an appropriate program.”


Its obvious that Deb Mattison and Rachel McGinley love their work. They are especially proud when their work not only enables a child to be successful in school, but also gives that child’s family a better understanding of their rights and enables that family to better advocate for the child in the future. Mattison and McGinley look forward to continuing to assure that all children, regardless of the type or severity of their disabilities, receive an educational program which will enable each child to flourish.

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