One of my favourite cartoons was drawn by Barbara Anthony of the Bloorview MacMillan Centre. It shows two children in a park, one standing and the other in a wheelchair. The standing child asks the child in the wheelchair: "Are you disabled?" The student in the wheelchair replies: "No, I'm Michelle."
Because I have a 20-year-old son who has cerebral palsy, that cartoon hits home. When Ryan started school 15 years ago, it was the very first time a student with a disability had attended a community school in our district. Our family embarked on Ryan's education not knowing what to expect. It was a very scary experience.
Today, students with disabilities are welcomed by schools everywhere. But how do you know if your child with a disability is receiving the best education? How do you know if the school can accommodate your child's needs? How do you know if your child will be included in all of the school's activities and social life? When choosing a school, take the time to explore. Use a checklist to get questions answered. Ask for detailed explanations.
Here are a few examples.
Does the school have any physical barriers that could keep the student from being part of all aspects of school life?
Is the staff committed to including students with disabilities? The positive attitude and understanding of every staff member is critical to the student's success.
An education plan must be developed by the student, the parents and a school team dedicated to bringing out the best in the student while making the learning experience fun. That means believing anything is possible, being inventive and exploring new options.
How is the education process facilitated? It's essential to find the perfect educational assistant for the student - someone compatible who makes learning a fun adventure, who has compassion and patience.
How are classmates involved? Can the student and his or her classmates communicate with each other? Is socialization facilitated?
When students look back at their schooling, they need to feel that they learned, made lasting friendships and that school was the best time ever. Every student deserves to experience those magical moments that make school just awesome.
Bill Mates is the chair of the National Affairs and Public Education Committee for the Easter Seals/March of Dimes National Council. He is also with the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, which encourages personal development and community involvement for young people.