National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #21
By Joan Zaretsky, PhD
Just two years ago, my life took a new direction as I was given an opportunity with Winnipeg Citizen Advocacy to become a mentor and advocate for a young woman looking for company. I had no idea how this relationship would so deeply influence my beliefs on what life is all about!
I was introduced to Michelle, who it turned out was one month younger than me, in January 2014 and our adventures began. Michelle has cerebral palsy and takes epileptic seizures. She had ventured out on her own about three years earlier, experienced a major seizure resulting in a hospital stay and was told she should not leave her apartment unattended in the future. She was looking for someone to take her out and support her being able to do things in the outside world. That was how I came into the picture. I now view our time spent together as the best day of my week! We do normal things like eating out, grocery shopping and visiting her Mom and we do special things like driving through the country to small towns for hot dogs, ice cream and shopping. She had never been to Burger King and was excited about having this opportunity. She was pleased to be able to shop for her Mother’s birthday present.
Being the same age, we enjoy discussing music, fashions, male relationships and other commonalities from our era. We both have a sense of humour and have developed a sisterly sense of teasing each other. I always tell her she should listen to me and respect her elders and she comments on how I am so old! I believe it is my role to make her life fun and make her laugh and these fun times together boomerang adding fun and laughter to my life at the same time.
I have learned so many life lessons from Michelle through our relationship. While I can talk about my beliefs and convictions regarding inclusive education, Michelle talks about her lived experiences. There are three lessons I value the most.
First, Michelle has taught me humility. While we take so many things for granted, she struggles with daily life activities such as zippering up her purse, tying her shoes and others. She accepts her challenges as her normal daily life and continues to always be positive. She embraces life with grace and makes the most of each day.
Secondly, Michelle has really grounded me in what life is all about. I was in tears as she told me she had never had a real friend before, someone she can ask silly questions, laugh and cry with and share her life experiences. She has had paid companions but relayed that is not the same. I just keep telling her she is stuck with me for life and we laugh together. I have come to realize the value of having friends in our lives. Without them, we are an island alone.
Lastly, I have learned to “Celebrate your own beauty”, the words on a picture I gave her for Christmas last year. Each of us has gifts and talents and a valued role to play in this world. Michelle has so many gifts to share and I have been very privileged she shares her gifts with me. She always has a positive attitude and loves to tease people. She likes to live on the edge and loves nothing more than to drive with the window completely down and the wind blowing through her hair. She has a fierce sense of determination to improve her walking, walking up and down her apartment hallway daily with a special form on her leg. She works hard to talk so others can understand her.
We recently presented to a class at Red River Community College and unlike the previous year when her only comment was “I talk funny and people don’t understand me”, this year she talked, laughed and answered the questions of the students. She even asked for the last word with a final thought she wanted to add. I was so proud of her confidence level as she shared her perspective of our relationship. She wants to be as independent as possible and I generally wait for her to ask for help before offering it. Sometimes it is hard for me to watch her struggle as she perserveres to complete the task.
I want to thank Winnipeg Citizen Advocacy for supporting us in our relationship and promoting the matching of mentors with adults with disabilities. Without their intervention, this relationship would never have developed. Michelle has made a difference in my life which could not be imagined without her presence. In November, she gave me a birthday card that read “Imagine a cake with a candle for every time you listened or put someone else before yourself. Imagine a candle for every moment you made a difference in someone else’s life. The light from all those candles would make the world so much warmer, brighter and happier … just like you.” I told Michelle it was the light from her many candles that made my life brighter. She truly is a friend for life and a soul sister!
Dr. Joan Zaretsky has been an educator for the past 40 years, serving as a classroom teacher, principal, Language Arts Consultant, Curriculum Coordinator, a Professional Issues Staff Officer with the Manitoba Teachers’ Society and a sessional instructor at University of Manitoba and Winnipeg. Joan completed her Doctorate in Inclusive Special Education in 2011. She won the Thomas B. Greenfield Award presented by the Canadian Association for the Study of Education Administration (CASEA) for her dissertation, entitled “Perspectives of Northern Manitoba Principals Regarding New Special Education Legislation”.
Joan has delivered workshops at conferences sponsored by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the International Council for Exceptional Children, the Canadian Association for the Study of Educational Administration, the Canadian Association of Community Living, and the Manitoba Teachers’ Society in the area of inclusive education.
While she officially retired in 2011, she refers to herself as “reinvented” as she continues to consult with, and support, many educational organizations. She has continued her own lifelong learning in the area of Universal Design in Learning, becoming a trained facilitator in the Three Block Model developed by Dr. Jennifer Katz. In 2014-15, she was the first Chair of the newly formed Manitoba Alliance for Universal Design for Learning (MAUDeL) Board of Directors, an organization designed to support social and academic inclusion for all students through the use of universal design for learning strategies.