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The Journey to Inclusion: A “Kick-Start” for Algoma

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #11

By John Policicchio and Heather Hicks, Community Living Algoma, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

October 11, 2017 will be remembered as the beginning of a journey towards greater inclusion for children and youth in Sault Ste. Marie and the Algoma District. This date marked the beginning of a two day conference hosted by Inclusive Education Canada and Community Living Algoma entitled “Creating Welcoming Communities: The Journey to Inclusion Begins at School’’.

For the past several years, Community Living Algoma has focused efforts on ensuring that all people (children, youth and adults with developmental disabilities) are citizens who are actively engaged, participating and contributing in meaningful ways to community. The organization is proud of our community champions; our community possesses much strength and there have many successes. We have witnessed remarkable progress towards inclusion and the positive impact on the quality of life of people we support.

Despite successes and progress, more can and needs to be done. Each and every person has a critical role in this and CLA strongly believes that the starting point for this journey is school. On October 11, 2017, CLA challenged the community to enhance its efforts to create an even more welcoming community in which ALL people play a role, are accepted and belong.

During his keynote address, Dr. Gordon Porter, Inclusive Education Canada, shared that the secret ingredient for inclusion for children with developmental disabilities is the other children at school. School is where we begin to learn about fairness, the importance of friendships and develop a sense of belonging to the larger community. In our formative years, our interactions with other children help us to understand and accept diversity. Children who experience inclusive classroom and school settings grow up to be adults who include people with developmental disabilities as friends, neighbours, volunteers and work colleagues-reinforcing the idea that the journey to inclusion truly does begin at school.

We acknowledge that changing schools to become more inclusive is hard work. Community Living Algoma is prepared to work closely with families, our four local school boards and our partner children’s service providers to develop a shared vision and culture of collaboration towards more inclusive education opportunities for children and youth. Our community can no longer afford the missed opportunities for children to learn alongside other children. Our community can no longer deny the legal obligation to provide schools that are accepting and inclusive.

Community Living Algoma’s optimism, our hope and our confidence in community as well as the resilience and trust people with disabilities and their families have placed in our organization, have allowed us to grow and provide us with the energy, confidence and courage to keep moving forward towards our vision that all people belong. Our community has demonstrated a high degree of readiness as many older youth and adults have been provided with opportunities and experiences to achieve their personal goals and enrich their quality of life within the community. Imagine the strength of our community if those opportunities and experiences started in inclusive school settings. The success for each future member of our community will come from our ability to work together to ensure that each child belongs and is included at school.

For CLA, October 11, 2017 marked the kick-start to renewed energy, focus and commitment to inclusive education. As Stephanie Vucko, a2z Consulting, said at the conference, it is time to roll up our collective sleeves, get messy and tackle the hard stuff. It is time to move away from a focus on the defective student and have an honest look at what system changes are needed in order to achieve the goal of inclusion at school. There is a strong sense of urgency in this work for Community Living Algoma; the well-being of future generations cannot wait!

John Policicchio is the Executive Director and Heather Hicks is the Director of Community, Family and Children’s Services with Community Living Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.