Sudbury, Ontario dad, Luciano Contini has a vision. He has two sons and wants them both to benefit from quality education in their neighbourhood school. They want both boys included in classes with their peers and everything Luciano and his wife Julie have learned since their youngest son was born with Down syndrome, makes them think it is not only possible, but necessary. But not everyone has the same vision. Luciano Contini shares his story with us.
“All these doctors are going to tell you is what that boy can’t do. Don’t believe them. You are going to be fighting for that child for the rest of your lives.”
I recall my wife and I both falling silent as a health care professional shared this with us. I believe that the reason we fell silent is that we began to absorb how our job as parents would be different from how we raised our first-born. We began to prepare for the reality that this job would expand beyond the walls of our home, in a way that we could not immediately predict.
It’s four years later and some things are becoming very apparent. For me, there is a distinction between differences you can “see” in people and those that you can not. This is not to say that challenges that are readily visible are more difficult to manage than those that are less apparent to the eye, but that application of stereotypes and discrimination can occur much sooner when differences in people are clearly “visible”. Closely associated to this personal experience is that when some people “see” a difference in someone, they react according to what they have been taught and/or they have questions. Questioning is so much more obvious in childhood, when we are the most impressionable and so full of those questions.
If I am even slightly accurate in what I say above, I would like to ask how we think children assess the world we live in; specifically, a world in which other children, who may look and/or act differently than themselves, are kept apart from them as they do things that children typically do, like go to school, play sports or play at a park. Let me share a personal experience with you.
My son with Down syndrome attends a Montessori school, which is focused on inclusion and that uses an integrative approach as a means of bringing the child back into an inclusive classroom. At Montessori, my son is “Peter” and I am proud to say that I am referred-to as “Peter’s daddy”. He is not “the kid with Down syndrome” and I do not receive uncomfortable looks when I am with him. Peter is with his friends when he eats, plays, sleeps and perhaps most importantly, when he learns. I would presume that if Peter is then placed in a separate classroom with other challenged children, many of his friends would ask why he is being separated from them. Contrast this with when Peter is surrounded by children with whom he does not attend school. When we take our son to the soccer field to watch his older brother play, for some children he suddenly becomes the kid with “funny eyes” or “ugly”. Are these children at fault? Unequivocally not – they have not been exposed to children who “look different”. And there are spin-off effects . . . in an instant, his brother becomes an advocate, telling his friends that his brother is “not ugly” and that he is “cute, because he’s my brother”.
Luckily, the lesson taught to the children by their parents in this personal example was that judgemental conclusions are not appropriate, that we must be kind and that Peter is a little boy like them, only unique, as we all are in our own ways. As for my eldest, I am told that he is “doing what a big brother does” – defending his “kid brother”. He loves his brother deeply, and through Peter he is blessed with the gift of seeing beyond differences from a very early age.
Children are impressionable. Separate the children at an early age, and the “normal” child begins to draw conclusions, becoming more likely to not be accepting of including the “different” children in his or her daily activities. Keep the children together, and the “normal” child is more likely to question why we would ever consider separating him or her from their friends. As adults, we are accountable for the outcomes manifested in the children who are affected by our decisions and actions. What we do as adults affects them positively or adversely, many times without us being aware of our power to influence.
Inclusive education is critical to acceptance not only in school, but to start the process of positive societal impact. We send our children into the care of our school systems as early as the age of four. Schools must acknowledge the considerable evidence that the achievement of children with challenges is significantly improved in inclusive classrooms. Further, an “inclusive classroom” is not the same as an “inclusive school environment”, where special needs children can be directed to segregated classrooms without proper consideration of reasonable accommodation. The research supports the former, and not the latter. I believe the social and societal benefits of inclusive classrooms to be immeasurable.
By now many have learned of the Moore v. British Columbia (Education) case. One of the significant conclusions of this case for me is that quality public education is not intended to be considered separately from “special education”. The court concluded that these supports should be treated as a ramp to equitable outcomes that every child should receive from public education. Inclusion has supposedly been guaranteed via legislation, but in the practical world, school boards’ definitions of “undue hardship” in accommodating special needs students have seemed to trump the expectations of various education acts and human rights codes. Those definitions were tested in the Moore case and the Supreme Court of Canada supported the family. Parents can now have some measure of increased confidence when expecting proper accommodation of their special needs child in the regular classroom.
We know that parents’ expectations will not always be met. As school boards are counselled on the Moore case by their lawyers, some of them will undoubtedly rely on different interpretations of the case and leverage their considerable influence and financial resources to take a position that is contrary to our own.
As parents and advocates, what do we do? To assure the full impact of the Moore case, we need to affirm our children’s entitlements in our schools. If we choose not to, we diminish, and even run the risk of losing the benefits that can potentially emerge from this victory for quality education and human rights. Through intense and collaborative effort we can help our own children and the children of others. We can help advance the lives of all of our children. My wife Julie and I intend to participate in this effort. We are confident we will be joined by many others.