Fighting for Children with Disabilities

Amanda O’Neal graduated magna cum laude from Arizona State University in 2011, earning her bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in psychology. She received her law degree from Whittier Law School in 2014 and obtained a certificate in Children’s Rights Law. While at Whittier, Amanda was a fellow in the Center for Children’s Rights Fellowship program. She received the Center for Children’s Rights Outstanding Fellow Award. She participated in Whittier’s pro bono Special Education Legal Clinic and also served as solicitations editor for the Whittier Journal for Child and Family Advocacy.

Amanda’s passion for special education law stems from her personal experience. She has two siblings with special needs who navigated the special education system. Beginning shortly after high school and while in college, Amanda worked as a habilitation provider for children with disabilities. Through that experience, she learned the struggles her siblings faced were all too common and quite pervasive. This realization became the touchstone for her decision to pursue a career as a special education and disability rights attorney.

Amanda started working at Tollner Law Offices in 2015, where she represents families in special education law matters, discrimination and tort claims, and limited conservatorships. Amanda is admitted to practice law in California and Arizona.

Nicholas Gaffney (NG): How did you become interested in special education law and make it your specialty?

Amanda O’Neal (AO): I went to law school specifically to pursue a career in special education law. I have personal connections with special education, as both my brother and sister received special education. Growing up, I witnessed my parents advocate for my siblings and sometimes fight with school districts to get my sister and brother what they needed. While I was in college, I worked as a habilitation provider for children with disabilities and quickly learned the barriers my siblings experienced within their school day were not unique. Cumulatively, all of those experiences created a passion to help families who have to navigate the special education process.

NG: What projects or ideas have you been focusing on lately?

AO: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our law firm has prioritized disseminating information to families regarding their legal rights during these unprecedented times. We have done this by providing webinars, participating in town halls, writing articles for local magazines, and updating our clients about the changing legal landscape when necessary. Living through the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing it through the lens of disability rights, I am more aware than ever of social inequities and how easy it is for society to diminish the rights and entitlements of individuals with disabilities during times of crisis. We see this in hospital rooms where individuals with disabilities who are non-verbal had to fight to amend COVID policies to allow them to be accompanied by their caregivers who speak on their behalf. We see this in the education realm, where students most intensively impacted by disabilities are receiving almost no education benefit at all. As a firm, we are stressing to all families, that federal laws have not been waived and the civil rights laws protecting students with disabilities remain intact.

NG: What could lawyers look at or do in a new way that would benefit their clients in a COVID-19 world?

AO: The priority is ensuring access to lawyers, so people can still be heard and receive advocacy services during a time of crisis. I believe this time in our lives is calling all lawyers and advocates to get creative and think of ways to facilitate access to attorneys including financially. Lawyers need to think outside of the box and continue building partnerships with their clients and communities to ensure that despite the challenges in a COVID-19 world we can understand the deprivations being endured and find ways to help cure them.

NG: What one thing about the practice of law would you change if you could?

AO: I would like to answer this in terms of what needs to be changed in special education and disability rights law specifically, rather than the practice of law. I think the practice of law itself is ever-changing and growing, but certain laws are in place that do not provide equitable opportunities to all students

Unfortunately, some tiers of society can take advantage of the special education laws, by this I mean that for the most part, affluent families can afford to educate themselves about their legal entitlements, and when necessary pay for services to enforce their rights. Specifically, there are special education entitlements that allow families to find alternative education, services, and/or supports when what is being provided by their school district is not appropriate for the student. If the privately procured services are appropriate, then the families have the right to seek reimbursement from the school districts. This opportunity is only accessible to the families with the means to pay for those opportunities up front and secure legal assistance to get the reimbursement. We need to find opportunities, resources, and ways to ensure these opportunities are afforded to all students and all families, not just those who can afford it. I would like to see more lawyers practice in this area to pursue the change we hope to see for all students. I ask that lawyers who have any interest in this area seek out local attorneys practicing and determine if this is an area they would like to pursue. A lot of work needs to be done and we can use all the help we can get because these students are worth it.

NG: What is the most exciting development you have seen recently in the practice of law, especially where it pertains to adults and children with special needs?

AO: In 2017, the Supreme Court decided its first special education case since 1982, finding in favor of the student. Disability advocates, including myself, were thrilled with the outcome and it has now paved the way for how we advocate for our clients since. The decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (137 S. Ct. 988 (2017)) clarified the level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with a free appropriate public education (FAPE), as guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The Supreme Court emphasized that the appropriateness of a student’s education depends on the specific child’s circumstances, and that the instruction must be specifically designed to meet a child’s unique needs through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The Court’s decision highlighted that a student’s educational needs shall be based on the student’s circumstances. Therefore, it should not be based on the school’s circumstances, the district’s circumstances, or any other extraneous factors other than what the student’s situation is, and what that student requires as a result.

As with any law, the impact of a precedential case has been slowly moving through the lower courts. Since 2017, there have been some strong cases coming out of the 9th Circuit, where I practice, further protecting our students.

NG: What technologies, business models and trends do you think will have the biggest impact on the practice of law in this space over the next two years?

AO: COVID-19 has quickly forced law firms to become technologically savvy. Within one week of shelter in place, our practice was fully virtual. All our staff meetings and client meetings are conducted through Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Outside of our internal systems, our practice has also moved virtually for all mediations, hearings, and our participation in Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings and 504 meetings where we represent our clients. I believe that the virtual meeting platforms will have the biggest impact on our practice, as it allows us the opportunity to serve more families across the state and even branch out into representing families in other states where our attorneys are licensed. The downside is that we are limited in our ability to serve people who do not have virtual access. I think virtual and remote practices will become more of the status quo over the next two years.

About the Author

Nicholas Gaffney is founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco and a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at or on Twitter @nickgaffney.

Send this to a friend