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Parents of disabled children won a major victory in the U.S. Supreme Court today. The justices ruled unanimously that parents do not have to hire a lawyer to sue a school district over a disabled child's education.

NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The court's ruling came in the case of Jeff and Sandy Winkelman, whose son Jacob is autistic. When he entered pre-school, Jacob's meltdowns were severe enough that the district placed him in a special school for autistic children. But after two years, Mrs. Winkelman says there was a changing of the guard, new school administrators and school board members, who said Jacob had to attend regular public school.

The Winkelmans fought the decision, Under the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act, public school districts are required to provide an appropriate free education for children with disabilities. And the Winkelmans contended that Jacob's autism was severe enough that he needed special training. Mrs. Winkelman.

Ms. SANDY WINKELMAN: Jacob does not understand what is being said to him, so things have to be instructed in a very specific way to Jacob. Meaning, he has to be in a secluded setting with no distractions, and it has to be delivered very visually.

TOTENBERG: Under the disabilities act, parents are entitled to go to court to enforce the law. But a majority of the courts have required parents to be represented by a lawyer. If they didn't have an attorney, their cases were thrown out.

Most parents like the Winkelmans don't have the money to pay legal fees. Mr. Winkelman is a medical technician who earns about $50,000 a year and Mrs. Winkelman, a mother of four, acted as the family lawyer - immersing herself in law books so that she could represent Jacob's interests in court. The Parma, Ohio School Board filed a complaint against her for practicing law without a license and the federal appeals court threw Jacob's case out of court on grounds that the family was not represented by a lawyer.

But today, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously disagreed. The court, with two justices, dissenting only in part, reversed the lower court ruling. Writing for the court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the Individuals with Disabilities Act clearly recognizes a parent's interest in a disabled child's education and the court said parents can not be shut out of court just because they're representing themselves. The ruling was a blow to school boards across the country. The National School Boards Association general counsel Fancisco Negron says that allowing non-lawyer parents in court will lengthen the process because parents are not legally trained and often are emotional.

Mr. FANCISCO NEGRON (General Counsel, National School Boards Association): That's going to result in more time, higher legal costs for school district. So I think that that potential is very real and I'm hoping that that parade of horribles doesn't come to pass.

TOTENBERG: Tom Goldstein, who filed a friend of the court brief in the case in support of the Winkelmans, acknowledges the potential impact of today's ruling, noting that the disabilities law covers some seven million youngsters - two thirds of them with parents who earn little enough that they could not afford lawyers.

Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Head, Supreme Court Litigation, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLC): Not all those people are going in to court, obviously, but it still a very significant number of parents who now have the opportunity to plead their case in court.

TOTENBERG: The Winkelmans will now have to go back in to court to make their case for Jacob continuing at the special school for autistic kids. Their son has made great progress there. Now almost 10, he's able to sit at a desk and is reading at first grade level. But the cost for the taxpayers is $65,000 a year.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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