In October 2016, Gordon Porter, Director at Inclusive Education Canada, and Debbie met for the first time while Gordon was promoting inclusive education at a series of speaking events in Northern Ontario. Debbie told Gordon he had a significant impact on the course of her life despite having never met in person.
In 1989 Gordon was President of the Canadian Association for Community Living, working with associations and families across Canada on many issues affecting their lives. While in the previous years Gordon was part of a team that developed a nationally recognized inclusive education program centered around the small town of Woodstock, New Brunswick. There was a current news story about a school board in Quebec resisting the demand for inclusion. Given his two roles as an educational leader and CACL President, Gordon was interviewed on the CBC show “As It Happens”.
Below, Debbie shares her experience of how listening to that episode of “As It Happens” in 1989 kept her believing in inclusive education, even when others did not believe in it.
I wanted to tell you the story of how you helped me many years ago.
I was involved in school advocacy beginning in about 1988. I was a very young professional – newly graduated in 1984 with a B.A.Sc in Child Development from the University of Guelph.
It was not an easy time. The response the families and I received was often fiercely protective of the status quo – often incredibly personal and mean, and threatened professional and personal reputations. At the time I was the Director of the Infant Development Program. I was the only children’s advocate in the ACL agency that was primarily involved in services to adults with developmental disabilities. I had a supportive but distant and somewhat disinterested or otherwise distracted, Executive Director, board members sitting for the agency on the SEAC committees who spoke in direct opposition to what I was advocating, and our agency ran a sheltered workshop at the time.
I knew inclusion in schools was a “thing” only because I had somehow found my way to a copy of a manual prepared by Jack Pierpoint and Marsha Forest that contained a series of essays on the topic of integration. All I remember was that it was khaki green in colour and it was my bible – the only guidance I had.
A very short time later, in 1989 I was utterly worn out, and fed up, completely heart broken. I had a particularly difficult day, and I decided definitively to look for other work, and in fact to leave the community.
It is funny how the universe answers or reveals itself. In my memory, it was that very day that I decided I was finished, that I was at home and listening to CBC radio’s “As It Happens”. I am a devoted CBC listener. I heard an interview with you, and you were talking about inclusion in schools. For the very first time I heard someone say that this was the work worth doing, and that while it was hard, it was absolutely the right work. You were so passionate and unequivocal and you completely broke me open. I remember pacing around my little house crying and talking to the walls. I know I fell asleep still crying. When I woke up I had decided to stay.
The work of school advocacy never got easier here in Northern Ontario. I hired staff to take on the hard work of it and I tried to be as supportive as possible to them. The little girl with Down syndrome who I could not get into JK or K, did get into Grade 1 eventually. Finally, we had both a bit of an opening with the principal and a willing teacher. I was so impressed with the teacher of that Grade 1 class that I eventually married him. I figured I had better make a few more inclusion minded people for this world.
That’s my story. You were incredibly important to me at a time when it was hard to get information about what was happening elsewhere in the province, country or world. There was no internet, no university library, and not one other person in the town who was working for the same goals as the families and I were – no one to talk to, guide or mentor me. It seems incredible now in our information-rich culture, but back then all I had was that green book and an interview I caught just at the edge of my hearing while I was doing the dishes.