Evelyn Ayay, ’21, has earned a two-year postgraduate Equal Justice Works Fellowship to provide legal advocacy for preschool-age children in Illinois in need of special education programming. Equal Justice Works is a Washington, DC,-based public interest organization that funds lawyers and law students working to provide equal access to justice. Ayay’s project is sponsored by Archer-Daniels-Midland, and Equip for Equality, the largest provider of special education legal advocacy in Illinois, will host her project.
Ayay, who came to the Law School knowing she wanted to be a special education attorney, will partner with medical providers statewide to identify children who might otherwise fall through the cracks during the transition from state-funded Early Intervention programming to special education services offered through the public school system.
“The goal is to reduce disparities and provide equitable access,” said Ayay, whose project will target children in marginalized and underserved communities. “There are a lot of barriers for families as they try and navigate the transition out of Early Intervention … [and many] end up getting kicked out when they should be continuing to receive services. We want to create a safety net to catch them.”
Ayay, who has interned several times in the Special Education Clinic at Equip for Equality, said Black and Latinx children are three times more likely to be denied access to special education services when leaving Early Intervention, which is available to infants and toddlers with disabilities or delays. Without continued support, children with autism and other disabilities are more likely to fall behind their peers, miss critical opportunities, and face discipline for “acting out.”
“The hope is that by ensuring access to these services early on, we can improve not only the outcomes for kids in preschool, which is a very important [stage of] brain development, but also long-term outcomes such as job attainment, graduation, and all the other wonderful things that promote equity in Illinois more broadly,” she said.
Ayay will provide direct representation at special education meetings and administrative due process hearings and offer legal advice and support to families behind the scenes. She will also engage in community outreach through “know-your-rights” trainings.
“There’s power in giving families this knowledge and these resources, and if we can reach them when their children are young, they can carry those lessons through their child’s entire education,” Ayay said.
A key feature of Ayay’s program will be the medical-legal partnership with Advocate Children’s Hospital in Chicago and Advocate’s Project ECHO, a statewide network of doctors who treat children with autism. Ayay will collaborate with medical providers—consulting on cases, teaching advocacy strategies, and training pediatricians to identify children facing barriers to access.
“Often, medical providers are the ones who have the most contact with families, especially if their child has a disability,” Ayay said. “Education is a social determinant of health. By increasing access to these services, doctors can also improve the long-term health outcomes for their patients.”
Ayay’s commitment to children’s disability rights grew from personal experience with a family member as well through her undergraduate work at Northwestern University, where she wrote a thesis on how parents of children with autism build resilience.
As a University of Chicago Law School student, Ayay has served as the vice president and events coordinator for the Education and Child Advocacy Society as well as on the Provost’s Accessibility Student Advisory Board.
“Evelyn developed a deep commitment to early childhood special education even before she came to law school, working at the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy and at her undergraduate institution’s Early intervention Research Group,” said Susan Curry, the Law School’s senior director of public interest law and policy. “Then, when she arrived at UChicago Law, she set about building herself into a special needs legal advocate: interning with Equip for Equality full time during both of her law school summers and also in two of her three school years, and making wise curricular and extracurricular choices, such as serving with the Law School’s Education and Child Advocacy Society. It is extremely satisfying for me to see that Evelyn’s dedication has been rewarded with this prestigious honor from EJW. She will be a tremendous asset to the hard-working attorneys of her host organization, Equip for Equality.”
In a recommendation letter, Zena Naiditch, the president and CEO of Equip for Equality, described Ayay as “an incredibly smart, dedicated, thoughtful, and mature young woman who would be a tremendous resource for young children and their families in some of the most under-resourced communities in Chicago and throughout Illinois.”
Ayay said she feels “humbled and fortunate” to collaborate with Equip for Equality on the project, which she said will enable her to apply the principles and actions she’s learned in “a really specific way.”
“We’ve developed this really wonderful relationship,” she said. “There are so many incredible, brilliant attorneys at the organization who will really contribute to this project and also to my own development as a lawyer. I just feel so excited for this next step.”