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Eleanor’s Journey: A Story of Public School Inclusion

National Inclusive Education Month Commentary #17

By Catherine & Gilbert French

My wife and I have mixed emotions today because our 21-year-old daughter has left on an extended trip to New Zealand. We are excited for Ella, but will miss her. She has a working visa and is seeking adventure in a land far from the safety and comforts of our home in British Columbia, Canada. We admired her determination and self-confidence as she undertook most of the trip planning herself. Like many of her peers, Ella has already travelled extensively with her family across Canada and parts of the USA, as well as to Europe with high school classmates. This time, she will be travelling alone to the other side of the world and hopes to meet new friends along the way. Some of our close friends and family are concerned about Ella venturing so far from home; especially since this will be her first trip abroad without a parent. Like many others, they believe that children diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) have limited abilities. However, Ella has learned how to manage most of the symptoms that were identified during her initial diagnosis when she was a child. Her amazing life journey has been inspiring.

PDD-NOS is synonymous with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). By the age of four, Ella exhibited many of the symptoms associated with ASD; such as difficulty communicating and interacting with other children. The Alberta Children’s Hospital (ACH) staff also discovered that Ella was profoundly deaf. These early diagnoses became the impetus for several interventions that were designed to support Ella as she entered Kindergarten. Fortunately for our family, we live in a small B.C. town where an inclusive education was already local school district policy. A team comprised from school district staff and caregivers within the local community, as well as professionals at the ACH, was formed to support Ella. We were encouraged to participate fully during the design of our child’s Independent Education Plan (IEP) and we also met with the team periodically each school year to review and revise Ella’s IEP, as well as to access her academic progress. Throughout her public-school years, the team ensured that Ella would attend regular classes with her cohort. The focus on inclusion was imbedded in the IEP, in all school activities, and in community events.

During the primary years, Ella’s classmates were told how “autism” affected her social interactions and learning. Most noticeable was her limited speech, a preference for parallel play, a reluctance to make sustained eye contact, violent mood swings, and a lack of empathy. A few of Ella’s classmates willingly participated in some of the interventions, as well as social skills development activities that were designed to help Ella cope. Her classmates learned to be more empathetic because Ella was included equitably in all the learning activities throughout the day. Voice amplifiers were installed so that Ella could hear the teachers, and these simple devices also improved communication with all the students. Sometimes, there were unexpected incidents and new challenges that had to be addressed. For example, one day an elementary school administrator wanted to send Ella home after she struck out at another child, following a provocation. Ella would have preferred to go home where she could play for the rest of the day. However, she received an in-school suspension instead and had to complete an extra assignment while the rest of the class attended a school-wide talent show. Missing a special event that her friends really enjoyed had the desired effect and Ella did not repeat the unacceptable behavior. Over time, Ella eventually overcame or learned to manage all her symptoms. She thrived in primary school and the transitions to elementary, then secondary, were almost seamless. As she became more aware of her own learning style and preferences, Ella became involved in the IEP process and accompanied us to the review meetings. In Grade 10, she helped to determine how teachers, teaching education assistants (EAs) and special education assistants (SEAs) would interact with her while in the classroom. Everyone was overwhelmed with joy when Ella excelled at drama, art and social studies. Although she struggled with reading comprehension, Ella learned to retain and recall historical facts with surprising ease, as she demonstrated during a class trip to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in northern France. Conversely, we struggled to help her to meet the high school math requirements; eventually hiring a tutor. As the school years passed, there were more ups than downs.

As an educator, I have been amazed by Ella’s steady progress. Before our daughter was born, I taught in public schools in Ontario and B.C. I had experience with both segregated and inclusive classrooms and can personally attest to the benefits of the latter model to meet the varied needs of all students. In the 1950’s & 1960’s, my sister Ann was “streamed” because that was the educational policy in Ontario. As a toddler, Ann lost one eye to cancer and her recovery kept her from attending school until she was seven years of age. From Kindergarten through secondary school, Ann was transported by bus across town to “special education schools” while her siblings walked a few blocks to public schools with their neighbourhood friends. My sister completed a vocational program but did not have the opportunity to acquire a Secondary School Diploma. The stigma associated with receiving a lesser education negatively impacted my sister’s social life, as well as any career prospects. Ann’s own child had a similar medical condition and the same practice of school segregation limited his education outcomes while also negatively impacted his opportunities to participate fully in society. At that time, parents had no choice but to send their children to “special schools”.

As parents of a child with special needs, we were determined not to allow the “autism” diagnosis to limit our daughter’s education or the opportunity to live a full life. Because Ella received an inclusive public school education, she achieved the same academic accreditation as her cohort. Ella was given equal opportunity to graduate from secondary school and earned the B.C. Certificate of Graduation (or Dogwood Diploma). Special needs students with IEP’s have the option to pursue the B.C. School Completion Certificate (or Evergreen Certificate) as an alternative. At the graduation ceremony, many people were pleased to hear that Ella had also received a scholarship plus two bursaries. She was well prepared to transition into post-secondary studies and attended two colleges; where she earned a Diploma in Digital Arts and New Media, plus a Mountain Hospitality Program Certificate. A very limited number of college staff were ever aware of Ella’s childhood diagnosis; although we did advocate once for an intervention to help reduce her anxiety when writing exams. The simple solution was to provide Ella with extra time to complete tests, if required. Knowing that she had that latitude reduced her anxiety. Ella worked summer jobs in retail or tourism, and managed her earnings. She became a lifeguard with Parks Canada and has earned enough money to fund the trip to New Zealand. Ella is determined to further her education. She is already planning to enroll in a graphic arts program next year. A close friend recently described Ella as “a poster child for early intervention and inclusion”.

As her proud parents, we reflect on the journey that has brought Ella to this exciting stage in her life. She has transcended far beyond the initial diagnosis that many mistakenly believed would limit her opportunities. We appreciate all the generous support that Ella received while in school and from within the community. Our daughter graduated from public school and college, has a rewarding job, and she continues to create beautiful art. Her loving “whanau” bids her “haere ra”. We look forward to hearing about Ella’s adventures “down under”.

Catherine & Gilbert French are appreciative and proud parents who live in British Columbia. This commentary was submitted by Bendina Miller, a past president of the Canadian Association for Community Living and a member of our IEC Network of Associates.