Future Attorney Defends Disabled Rights
By Csaba Sukosd | August 8, 2023
Anna Bulkowski has experience with the struggles of a family caring for a young person with a disability. That strife was a part of her upbringing.
"My younger brother Jack was born with a genetic disorder that slows a person's mental and physical growth. He's 19 now and is at the developmental level of a two-year-old," said Bulkowski, a recent law school graduate.
She saw the barriers with healthcare providers to enhance his motor skill development through speech and physical therapy. Bulkowski also witnessed how their school district was reluctant to provide additional services for his educational development. Those experiences motivated her to become an advocate for her brother and others with disabilities.
"I fell in love with special education law and how you can help families in these different positions and really work with parents and students to get these children the services they need," said Bulkowski.
She has defended the rights of special needs children across central Ohio over the last year as a legal fellow for Disability Rights Ohio. The nonprofit organization works with disabled people and their families to address concerns with schools about how a student is treated and the resources a child is provided.
Bulkowski's position is funded by a grant through the Civil Justice Program. The program is a Supreme Court of Ohio initiative that supports legal aid groups providing assistance in civil matters such as housing, healthcare, education, and reentry. The program also affords opportunities for young legal professionals to enhance their knowledge and skills as an attorney.
"It's given me invaluable resources that I can use to help people in all areas," said Bulkowski.
In special education matters, that includes meetings to discuss a child's educational needs, representing them during a disciplinary hearing, and other specialized assistance. Her primary focus is dedicated to individualized education plans (IEP), which are required by federal law. These agreements between families and schools detail the services a school must provide to a special needs student. When parents sense something is wrong with how their child is being taught, they reach out to Disability Rights Ohio.
"I discovered through some digging that the school was in violation of my son's IEP. They weren't letting him go to his special classes, so he wasn't attending art and music. He wasn't getting grade-level work," said Amy House, whose son William has autism.
After House's attempts to resolve the issue directly with the school district failed, she connected with Bulkowski. The legal fellow stepped in, speaking on behalf of the House family, and educating them about their rights and the process. That knowledge can be invaluable to parents of a special needs child who often face similar conflicts regarding services from medical providers and coverage with health insurance companies.
"Lots of families don't know about all the different resources that are possible to make this journey a little easier for them," said House. "Anna represents us and empowers us. She equips us to better advocate for ourselves, which we can then pass onto other families in similar situations."
"When parents feel empowered enough to therefore empower other people, and keep that going, it's incredible," added Bulkowski.
That advocacy for special education law is reflected in Bulkowski's work. It's evident when she's assisting families directly and when she's researching their cases at her desk.
"I have a picture from when Jack was in elementary school sitting on my desk because he is always there in the back of my mind," she said.