National Inclusive Education Month – Commentary #5
By Martha Walls
When my husband and I learned that our unborn daughter had Down syndrome we were terrified. Before her birth, our concern turned to daycare options. In something of a panic, I phoned the daycare we had planned to use – the Child Study Centre (CSC) at Mount Saint Vincent University (which is where we both work). The voice of CSC Director, Debbie Armstrong, immediately calmed my fears: “Of course we take children with Down syndrome! They excel here!” This was one of the first moments to predict how wonderful would be life with our daughter, named Quinn, and was our first glimpse at how very special is the Child Care Centre.
Just after Quinn’s second birthday, a few weeks before her start date at the CSC, we toured the facility, met her main teacher, Taylor Hansen, and learned for the first time that Quinn would be supported by an Inclusion Coordinator, Erin Dooly, who would work to facilitate Quinn’s involvement in all aspects of the daycare program. We were surprised and thrilled to learn that our daughter would have this extra level of support.
Quinn has now been at the CSC for four months. As we watch her excel our enthusiasm for the CSC and its commitment to inclusion is unabated. Within weeks, Erin, Taylor and other CSC staff coordinated a meeting of the various professionals who are part of Quinn’s life. For the first time ever, Quinn’s physical and occupational therapists, speech pathologist, and early interventionist gathered for a group meeting and their various programs for Quinn were incorporated into an incredibly comprehensive Individual Program Plan (IPP).
We are thrilled by how the CSC program has seamlessly supported our wider plan for Quinn’s development; her motor development and language skills have soared. We are most impressed, however, by the staff’s commitment to inclusivity. Quinn has been fully and thoughtfully included in all daycare activities. Seemingly simple, but incredibly meaningful, practices have muted the challenges that might have set Quinn apart from her classmates. For example, because Quinn does not yet walk independently, regular “field trips” around the MSVU campus require that she be transported. Instead of pushing Quinn in a stroller in a way that might infantilize her and distinguish her from her peer group, staff decided to instead pull Quinn – and a friend – in a wagon. Rather than being a marker of her difference, wagon rides have become a special activity enjoyed equally by Quinn and her friends, all of whom love to be chosen to accompany Quinn on a wagon ride.
Strategies to foster Quinn’s mobility have similarly minimized her exceptionalities and have promoted classroom comradery. To support Quinn as she learns to walk, staff at the CSC have adapted a toy shopping cart (a favorite toy among the toddler set) that allows Quinn to walk herself around the classroom. The first day that Quinn proudly and independently walked with her cart to her circle time, a chorus of two- and three- year-olds clapped and cheered her on. Our extraordinary pride in our daughter that day was matched equally by gratefulness for the CSC for creating such a supportive environment.
Parents of children with special needs can grow accustomed to hearing of their children’s “deficiencies.” The CSC offers an alternative message, however, choosing instead to celebrate the strengths of all children. Quinn’s IPP is a prime example as it is chockablock with praise, extolling her happy disposition, curiosity, interest in books, energy, sense of humour, love of music and motivation. This document reveals to us how committed the CSC is to Quinn’s success, but more than that, it makes clear that the staff at the CSC see our daughter just as we do: as an amazing little girl whose potential should not be – and thus is not – limited by her chromosomal count.
As new parents, we are just beginning to learn about the intrinsic value of inclusive education. However, in just four months, the MSVU Child Study Centre has shown to us how possible, and how important, it is.
Martha Walls is an Assistant Professor of History at Mount Saint Vincent’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Born on Prince Edward Island, Martha Walls holds a BA and PhD from the University of New Brunswick and an MA from Dalhousie University. She taught for four years at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS. Martha’s research area lies in Atlantic Canadian First Nations history, with a specialization in the historical experiences of 20th century First Nations women. Her book, “no need of a chief for this band”: The Maritime Mi’kmaq and Federal Electoral Legislation, 1899-1951, was published by UBC Press in 2010. Her work has also appeared in Acadiensis, the Canadian Journal of Native Studies, and the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association. Martha’s husband Corey Slumkoski also teachers History at MSVU.