As I park my car, a sea of pink cherry blossoms covering the four trees abutting the school parking lot greets me. The cheerful blossoms stand in sharp contrast to the realities being reported over the car’s radio as I drove here for a day full of IPRC meetings. Government cutbacks, teacher layoffs, cuts in services for autism and mental health, cuts in funding for Special Education, increases class sizes—my head is spinning.
I grab my things, close the car door, then make my way to the school entrance. Walking up the steps to the school, I feel a heaviness. It is the same heaviness I have felt at every school at which I have recently been working. A heaviness born of helplessness. There being more questions than answers. Uncertainty about the future of our already heavily laden educational system. Not knowing how proposed changes will affect our most vulnerable students.
Upon opening the door to the school, the speckled cream colour tiles that cover its floor catch my eye. They draw me back to when twenty-five years ago I was a student-on-placement at Rideau Regional Centre. Where similarly coloured tiles covered the floors of the now-closed institution for the disabled.
My mind conjures up an image of the Centre’s hallways. That, bounded by sparse walls, seemed to go on forever. The pervasive smell of the Savlon fluid used to clean the tiles. The voice of a young man with Down Syndrome who greeted me each morning upon my arrival. Sending me forward, step-by-step on the tile floors, to the ward where my young charge waited in his wheelchair, just inside the doors, for me to arrive.
In his late 20s, Timmy had been in the ward since the sixth grade. Once ambulatory, he, like most of his fellow residents, lost the ability to walk a few years after being admitted here. Soon after, his, like their, mobility, privacy, opportunity and dignity were sacrificed. His fate no longer affected by his personal voice and his desired choice.
Inside the ward, windows afford residents views of a world few will ever experience. Around its perimeter, each resident sits in the same spot they have sat for years. Some wear helmets. Protection for when frustration, boredom, and monotony becomes unbearable and the only outlet is to violently ram their head into the wall. So forcefully, the entire ward shakes.
Here at the Rideau Regional Centre, grown men and women spend their lives in cribs. Devoid of human contact. Seldom visited by family members. Largely forgotten by the people who live beyond the cream coloured tile floors of the Centre.
Stepping into the school today, I think about the residents of the Centre whom I carry in my heart. They are continual reminders that basic human rights, including access to education, were, throughout history, denied to individuals with exceptionalities.
Every step I take down the hall I take in gratitude that in 1968 circumstances started to change after the release of Hall-Dennis Report, Living and Learning: The Report of the Provincial Committee on Aims and Objectives of Education in the Schools of Ontario. It 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.” And led to the creation of Special Education in Ontario.
Walking down the hall to the room where the IPRC meetings will be held, I think about how each speckled-cream-coloured tile on which I am stepping is a tribute to Amendments to the Education Act of 1980 (also known as Bill 82) that made universal access the law of the land. That the requisite funding, processes, and programming it codified enabled students who had been confined to various institutions—including Rideau Regional Centre—to enter the mainstream educational system.
Almost to the room (where the IPRC process set forth in Bill 82 will play out yet again), I think about quality education as an implicit right of all people. That we as educators and policymakers must do everything in our power to honor and preserve the dignity, independence and inherent capacity of each student. A point made real by the memory of Rideau Regional Centre, its practices and residents.
The collective memory of such institutions, their practices and residents is the driving force for why we now have inclusive education. The days of misunderstanding, fearing and shunning, the disabled and mentally ill are over. No more with they stigmatized, stereotyped and cast away. Put in cribs, relegated to wards. Their lives the heavy price of societal ignorance.
It was a different time. Mindsets have changed since then. Evidence of the wisdom of Maya Angelou’s admonition to “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
So what do we know?
We know budget cuts hurt kids. Larger classes hurt kids. One size fits all approaches hurt kids. As do reductions in specialized programming, Special Education funding and support personnel. Our system cannot do more with less.
Further, we know better than to back away from universal access. And because we know better, each of us must accept responsibility to defend the right of all children—especially the marginalized ones who have little or no voice—to receive a quality education in the least restrictive environment.
Moreover, we know better than to look at the educational system through a deficit model. And we know better than to focus on the needs of specific student populations. Such as the growing number of students with Autism or significant mental health issues. Also, we know that within the current system it will never feel like there is enough support, (or enough educational assistants) for all students. This is a reality of our system. A reality that we as educators do not control.
After walking into the meeting room, I greet the people there then take a seat.
While waiting for one more member of the group to arrive, I think about how in the face of government cutbacks we collectively and individually must focus on what we can control. The way Special Education programming for students—think IEPs—builds on strengths, not deficits.
Might this approach be a way forward? What would happen if it were applied to the systemic challenges we face? Rather than feel helpless and heavy, perhaps we should develop an IEP for our system. Build on its strengths, rather than focus on weaknesses.
Quickly, I consider the neighborhood school in which I am now sitting. The strength of the way students here works in enriching, deep learning environments alongside peers. The power of each lesson through which every student actively participates regardless of ability or aptitude, developing compassion and empathy for other students in the process. How the design of a lesson, by putting Maslow before Bloom, acknowledges the social-emotional learning needs of each student. The way augmenting communication and adapting technology enhances each teacher’s instruction and enables all students to learn. This school and the practices herein are examples of using what we know about teaching and learning to get more from what we have. We have a world-class education system. Indeed, that is what we must fight to sustain.
When we grow fatigued and question how we will move forward given the challenges ahead, focus on the distance we have traveled. It is immense. Our how rests in the why of inclusion. This is the moral imperative of the standard we have set in our schools. We must champion quality education for all students. We must not allow provincial cutbacks erode the gains we have made towards equity and inclusion.
As the meeting convenes, I look out the vertical window in the door. There, across the way, on the far wall hangs a banner: Seek Justice, Love Kindness and Mercy, Walk Humbly With God. These words, the theme of the Ottawa Catholic School Board, warm my heart.
The first of eight IPRCs begins with the chairperson greeting the parents and introducing each panel member. As we proceed, my mental meanderings to the Rideau Regional Centre, Hall-Dennis, Bill 82, and a classroom in this school building draw to a close.
Fully present in this moment I look to the parents sitting across from me. As we each bow our heads to pray, I know they bring hopes and wishes for their son with them today. As well as their faith in us and our system.
In the spirit of Justice, our team raises our mission to God. May this child, as with every child in our system find justice within our schools. May we champion their needs; may we rise above the barriers we each face. May we never forget the importance of the work we do. It is God’s work.
I linger a bit after the eighth IPRC of the day to thank my colleagues and wish them well for the summer, then head to my car. Where, as I brush sweet smelling cherry blossom petals from its windshield, I commit myself to serve our most vulnerable students next year. Consider the role I will play in each child’s life. Reflect on the trust the parents hold in me and the school system. Hold those children in prayer this summer. And reflect on how I will seek justice, love mercifully and walk humbly alongside each child and his or her parents next year.
After getting into the car, I sit for a moment. Before turning on the ignition, I pause to reflect on the events of this day—Our work matters. Our students matter. Our voice matters and, our prayers matter. In that spirit let’s pray together:
“Lord of all kindness, we want the best for the students we serve and we seek excellence, a value we honour through the Gospel of Christ. Guide us with wisdom as we plan for the needs of our students. Let our moral purpose continue to be meeting the needs of our students. Lord, continue to bind us together in community so that all our work and companionship reveals your love in new ways every day. We make this prayer through Christ our Lord, in whom we are one. Amen.”