North Vancouver school district to examine barriers faced by kids with disabilities

Often, staff don’t even realize they’re making ‘able-ist’ assumptions about kids with disabilities, say North Vancouver advocates.

Parents of kids with disabilities say they’re hoping for a new school district policy aimed at challenging “able-ist” assumptions will help their kids to be seen as more complex, whole people and to improve their school experience.

Too often, kids with disabilities – particularly those with autism – are still being excluded from some classroom activities, say parent advocates, or given school work at a level far below what more neuro-typical kids in their class are doing.

In some cases, an intermediate or high-school-aged child with a disability might be given kindergarten-level coloring sheets to complete in class, said Jennifer Branston, co-chair of the North Vancouver District Parents Advisory Council.

One North Vancouver mom recently described for school trustees how her daughter was given “frequent and long breaks” from the classroom when she would be left to walk school halls.

But those weren’t breaks her daughter needed, said the mom. “These were breaks the classroom teacher needed so my daughter wouldn’t disrupt her teaching routine.”

In some cases where kids have self-regulating challenges that results in behavioral concerns, families have even been told their children can’t attend school for a period of time, said Branston. “We’ve heard of a handful in the past year,” she said.

Superintendent to take a closer look

In response to those kinds of concerns, recently the North Vancouver school board voted to have school district staff take a closer look at issues of “able-ism” within the school district, and whether more training for staff and attention to the issue is needed .

Trustee Cyndi Gerlach, who brought the issue to the board, said it’s also important that students with disabilities be included in those discussions.

Too often that isn’t happening, she said. For instance, during a discussion on Evergreen completion certificates – often handed out to kids with disabilities in place of a regular Dogwood graduation certificate – Gerlach said she asked if any students or families of students who would be receiving the certificates had been consulted, and was they told hadn’t been.

“For me, inclusion is about making sure that their voices are also being heard,” she said. “So we stop speaking about people with disabilities and we start speaking to them and with them.”

Kids with disabilities face discrimination

While progress has been made on recognizing challenges and discrimination faced by Indigenous students, LGBTQ students, and students of colour, there’s still a way to go with students who have disabilities, said Gerlach.

Too often derogatory phrases like “I’m so OCD today” or “that’s retarded” are still ones people don’t think about, she said.

The issue can even extend to how physical schools are designed, said Gerlach. Modern designs featuring multi-use spaces that are often large, loud, and bright can be overwhelming for kids with sensory sensitivities, she said.

At their most recent board meeting, North Vancouver school trustees voted to have the superintendent look into issues of “able-ism,” including the perspectives of people with disabilities, and outline training and resources possible in the future.

Branston said she hopes by highlighting the issue, “it will be a beginning” towards more genuinely inclusive education.

“We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk,” she said.

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