Education for All: A Moral Imperative

My reflections this week on our OECTA CLC project stem from our discussion with Lynne Coletti, OCSB Principal of Student Services, on the importance of “moral imperative” in guiding educational practice. Our project inquiry is: “How might technology be leveraged to increase independence among exceptional learners?” The team for our project is Leslie Cardarelli, Charlene Davidson, Sarah Faloon and I. Jenny Mbamalu and Katarina Cavar (University of Ottawa, Faculty of Education students) also participated in our Day 3 activities. Here are my reflections after Day 3 of the project.

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Three rooms back, on the left side of the institutional ward of the Rideau Regional Centre in Smith Falls, Ontario, a lone, frail, figure of a man lies in a metal crib facing a window shrouded by an austere drape. A white sheet, wrapped cocoon-style, covers his body. Put in place by his twisted limbs. The metal bars of the crib, a prison he cannot escape. His life devoid of love, connection and human touch—the sparse sheet is a modicum of comfort.

Each day, when I visit the man, I open the drapes and talk to him. I watch as he shuffles his twisted and deformed body around in the crib so sunshine can warm his face. His eyes, usually fixated on the wall, slowly connect with mine. His piercing eyes, surrounded by a gentle, handsome face, tell me he is truly listening to what I say.

Each day as I leave his room, I think about how, there in the crib, the man battles to maintain his humanity. Swaddling is his desperate ritual to feel something and preserve the last remnants of his personhood. His efforts are a tribute to the indomitable human spirit. Thinking these thoughts invariably lead me to wonder what if. What if people fail to see beyond his physical disability? What if he has undiscovered brilliance? How aware is he of his plight and the endless days trapped in this one room? How is his reality similar to other residents in the ward?

This was my life before I became a teacher, working with a wide range of individuals with disabilities. Part of my training was a work placement at the Centre. I still remember its long hallway that seemed to stretch on for miles, a labyrinth of wards housing the hidden vessels of humanity. Between the barren white walls, human souls, long ago forgotten by the outside world, lived their lives.

Ambulatory residents roamed the halls of their wards. The un-ambulatory confined to wheelchairs on their wards. I use confined with intent. Many residents, upon admission, had walked into the facility. Yet a year or two later, few are ambulatory. Wheeled out each morning, put around the perimeter of the main room. Day after day, month after month, year after year, in the same spot.

Some residents wear helmets. Protection for heads rammed against the walls so hard that the entire ward shakes. The brunt of lives lived in frustration, boredom and monotony brought to bear against the Centre’s walls.

“To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unlovable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain” (Jean Vanier, Becoming Human)

Tommy, a resident assigned to me, has been a resident at the Centre since the sixth grade. He was just two years older than me. Diagnosed with Autism, Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy and profound Deafness, Tommy carried the labels – limited intellect, non-verbal, and having no emotion.

Despite his difficulties, Tommy’s genuineness communicated with me. Every day he waited by the door for my arrival. Awkwardly glided his wheelchair, with his one functional hand, to follow me around the ward. Stared at me with his tremendously blue eyes. Leaned his head on my shoulder. Sweet, simple, and human, Tommy represented Humanity in its purest form.

During my placement at the Centre, I took the time to review each resident’s file. I read family stories and medical histories. Viewed the photographs that documented each resident’s story. Their eyes revealing all that I needed to know. At admission, eyes open wide, flickering brightly with promise and hope. The flicker in the eyes, over time diminished, dulled, and finally lifeless.

The photographs of Tommy showed his beautiful blue eyes becoming blank and hostile. Love gone. Promise gone. His Light extinguished.

Tommy, the man in the crib, and the other residents did not arrive at the Centre as they were when I met them. Their abilities, emotions and remembrances had eroded over time. Their dignity faded into the austerity of institutional life, slowly seeping onto the cold tile floor. Each year, less and less, until there is nothing left.

Driving from Smith Falls to my residence in Ottawa takes 40 minutes. On the drive, I often would contemplate the life, segregation and monotony of the people—Tommy, the man in the crib, and others—whom I had come to love. I would think of the many places I had been. The experiences I had lived. While they sat along the perimeter of the ward—forgotten, dismissed, and entrapped.

On the drives, I vowed to never extinguish anyone’s light. To remember that a tiny spark of life can exist places that others only perceive as darkness. To realize that all human life is precious.

Over the years, I have not forgotten my vow. I have come to accept that protecting life and advocating for those who are voiceless is a moral imperative. That by affording all people the opportunity of engagement, we tend the flames of the vulnerable. That in so doing, I must not do for them, what they can do for themselves. For in their abilities, no matter how small, resides the capacity for independence, dignity, and accomplishment. That when I look past the disability and label to see the person, I make a person feel worthy, valued and an integral, contributing member of a community.

Sadly, such basic human rights, including the right to an education, have, throughout history, been denied to many individuals with exceptionalities. Their needs largely ignored. This changed with the release of the Hall-Dennis Report, Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario in 1968 and the birth of Special Education in Ontario. The report called for “the right of every individual to have equal access to the learning experience best suited to his/her needs, and the responsibility of every school authority to provide.” It was finally the Amendments to the Education Act with Bill 82 in 1980 that codified equal access to education for all students in law. Five principles for accessibility were laid out, governing universal access, funding policy, appeals processes, and the right to ongoing assessment, IPRC designation and specific programming. Students in various institutional programs, many of whom had never been to school, entered the school system.

I believe that the right to quality education goes beyond Bill 82 and rests on the implicit basic human rights of all people. That policies and instructional decisions should be morally sound. That each of us has a duty to educate students in ways that preserve dignity, foster independence and build upon the inherent capacity of each student. Period.

Last week, my beliefs, experiences, and vow were front-of-mind as our CLC team met to take up the issue of students identified as having Mild Intellectual Disabilities. Students with MID are characterized by slow intellectual development and having potential for academic learning, independent social adjustment and economic self-support.

As part of our team’s work, we visited the Grade 4 to 6 Junior Special Needs class taught by Charlene Davidson. We learned that for Charlene, the survival skills for the future are a priority of her instruction. For her students, developing independence stretches further into the instruction of life skills, social skills and self-advocacy.

The members of the team—Sarah, Leslie, Charlene and I – teach students with a wide range of learning, behavioural, communicational and intellectual exceptionalities. The students, although having disparate exceptionalities, do face similar barriers to independence.

One barrier the team discussed is learned helplessness, a barrier often enabled by persons charged with supporting exceptional students. We discussed how, often, it is easier and faster for a teacher to do a task for a student, than to have the student do it. That sometimes during an arduous task, we teachers don’t want to see a student struggle. We run out of patience and sometimes set the bar too low or provide blanket accommodations. That in such cases, not allowing students to struggle, perpetuates the disability by disempowering the student and thus causing greater harm, than good. Unsettling the delicate balance of education—pushing forward, yet having a cautious eye.

Reflecting upon my days at Rideau Regional Centre, I see that excessive accommodation and support was detrimental to the residents’ independence. How over time, such practices eroded the residents’ capacities and created dependencies. I fear the same possibilities exist in our schools.

That is why it is imperative that we build upon the skills students have, by stepping back and allowing students to press forward on their own. For Sarah, Leslie, Charlene and I, this imperative is the focus of our work. It is the WHY of all that guides our work, the basis for our beliefs and the essence of every interaction with each student. By doing this, we make manifest that they are us, we are them, and each of us “reveals the secret face God.” (Jean Vanier)