Updated: Feb 23, 2021
Inclusion is the goal, but BC schools aren't there yet
By Spencer van Vloten
Formed to promote the inclusion of students with disabilities in BC's education system, BCEdAccess provides support to thousands of families and students throughout the province.
Spencer van Vloten talked with BCEdAccess's Nicole Kaler about ongoing exclusion in BC schools, what inclusion really means, and what parents can do to set their children up for success.
Spencer: What does BCEdAccess do?
Nicole: We’re a grassroots group of parents, guardians, and family members of children with disabilities and complex learning needs. We support each other to make sure these kids have what they need in the education system.
One aspect is person-to-person support, walking each other through different issues like how to deal with teachers and principals, and from this we see that families across the province are facing similar issues and can be a great help to one another.
As a group, we lobby the provincial government for policy reform, and partner with other disability groups who are doing similar work.
We work at all ends, doing what needs to be done to get children what they want, need, and deserve.
Spencer: We often hear the word ‘inclusion’, but it means different things in different contexts. What does inclusion mean when it comes to education?
Nicole: Inclusion varies by family, but at the heart of it is that it’s what the child and family wants and needs.
Contrary to what’s often suggested, it’s not necessarily having a disabled student in a class with non-disabled peers. My daughter would not be in an instructively inclusive environment were she in a mainstream class, but for some kids they can be in that type of class with the right supports.
There's no one-size-fits-all inclusion, and sometimes being with one’s disabled peers doesn’t mean it’s non-inclusive; it’s about choice and meeting each student's needs.
"There's no one-size-fits-all inclusion"
Spencer: What has the state of inclusion been in BC schools before and during the pandemic?
Nicole: There was a trend of kids being forced out of school system.
School districts have been normalizing the idea that if you have some sort of diagnosis, physical or mental, you don’t get an education like everyone else. There was little to no support for accommodations, things like half days or non-school days.
Initially everything just went online, and a lot of our kids can’t access things remotely, so there was full, across the board exclusion right away.
Now the pandemic has become a justification for exclusion and discrimination, amplifying the problems which already existed.
Spencer: What issues are BCEdAccess focused on now?
Nicole: Right now, as always, our overreaching goal is that our children be able to reach their full potential, be able to self advocate, have education, and to support themselves.
We continue to search for the defining reasons for exclusion in schools. Tracking exclusion and calling on schools to address this. We have an online tool called the exclusion tracker that parents can use to record instances where kids are excluded, such as when they were told not to come to school or to a particular school event or activity.
When we look at outcomes down the line, and ask “why are these people unemployed?”, “why are these people homeless?”, we can often track it back to education and exclusion.
BCEdAccess provides support to families, and advocates for equitable access to education
Spencer: Inclusion is the goal, but what specific steps are needed to make it a reality?
Nicole: The biggest thing we want to see is accountability. That means there are consequences for things done to kids in school.
Right now, if a teacher excludes a student with a disability, that teacher still gets paid, the school still gets funding, and the student and family are the only ones who suffer. There must be standards in place so that there's accountability for neglect and abuse, or else those things will continue to happen
It doesn’t matter what class sizes are, or how many education assistants there are; considerations like this are important, but they're nothing if there's no accountability.
Spencer: What level do you think is most important to target for change---school, district, or province?
Nicole: I started—and I think many parents start--with the people who were in direct contact with daughter, like teachers and principals.
It works to some extent, and that's where you can see changes made the fastest, but year after year, you get a new principle, a new teacher, a new education assistant, and you’re right back to square one
"Year after year, you get a new principle, a new teacher...and you're right back to square one"
I then looked at the district level, which can set the budget for area and create broader change than schools alone can, but you find limitations there too and what they can do is limited by the support they get from the province.
So then I looked provincially. There's a relationship between the education ministry and school system, and legislation is set by the province, but the legislation isn't prescriptive in telling schools how to do things; it's more financially based. So you still don't get a common standard of inclusion.
And you know, attitudes society-wide are important, because if everyone in a community supports exclusion, or doesn't support inclusion, its schools will reflect that.
We really need to hit every level, in schools and out of schools, because they all impact what happens in the classroom.
Spencer: What advice would you give parents of children with disabilities who are entering the school system?
Nicole: You’ll have to be more engaged than parents of a child without a disability or diagnosis. When things go off the rails it happens really fast, and you need to be prepared for that.
You really have to know the players involved with your child’s education. Know the teachers, the resource teacher, the principle, and even the superintendent.
And you also need to lay out expectations right from start: what your goals are--like 'I want my child there all day'--and to have these conversations with those players right from the start. Be clear about what you want, be persistent, and make sure you know who to go to if problems arise.
Spencer: What should be done to help graduating students successfully transition out of school?
Nicole: Inclusion in society is a lifelong goal, something that communities as a whole need to promote and carry out in all facets of life. We shouldn't think that if schools were fixed everything else would be fixed, and advocates from different sectors need to work together rather than blaming each other or being isolated from each other.
My daughter is being passed off to Community Living BC (CLBC), which doesn’t take education seriously. Agencies like this should be more involved in schooling, because many students will be coming into their system.
CLBC needs to be there for support before that happens in order to help young adults with disabilities transition successfully, and this requires more overlap and engagement with the school system before the kids leave school.
Spencer: What can the average person do to support inclusion?
Nicole: Be aware. Look around and ask yourself which people you aren't seeing. Our communities are diverse, and there are many people with disabilities, but if they’re not in the space you are, question why that is.
Ask those questions, and reflect on why don’t you see them employed at your place of work or businesses your frequent; why you don't see them at the same events or activities, and so on.
"Be aware; look around and ask yourself which people you aren't seeing"
Spencer: How can people support BCEdAccess?
Also ask parents of kids with disabilities about their experiences, because people often have no idea of what these families are going through, but are so incredibly supportive once they know. Many of my friends were shocked when I opened up about what we were going through with our daughter, and had no idea any of this was happening.
If you share your experiences, you help bring more attention to the issue and begin to realize just how much people care.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to email@example.com!