Dr. Fiona Whittington-Walsh
By Spencer van Vloten
July 30th, 2021
Board President of Inclusion BC and faculty member in Kwantlen Polytechnic University's department of sociology, Dr. Fiona Whittington-Walsh has spent decades working to build inclusive schools and communities that welcome people of all abilities, and recognize their strengths.
Spencer van Vloten talked with Fiona about a range of issues, including her involvement in a historic BC project, how to make education truly inclusive, and what her favourite inclusion themed films are.
Spencer: Tell us about yourself and your background in disability issues
Fiona: In my late 20s I started working in a segregated Toronto school for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
At the time I thought it was great, and after working there a few years I moved to BC and began working in a group home.
Then in the late 80s I got a job in BC’s first project to mainstream children with intellectual disabilities into neighbourhood schools, and it was such an eye opening experience.
Having worked in segregated and inclusive classrooms, I saw that being in a class with other children who didn’t necessarily have disabilities was so powerful for students with intellectual disabilities.
Having worked in segregated and inclusive classrooms, I saw that being in a class with other children who didn’t necessarily have disabilities was so powerful
I worked with one boy in particular. He was non-verbal, but all the students loved him. Boys hung out with him and bought him birthday gifts, girls cared for him, and as a result his communication skills developed rapidly.
I'd also support him in the community, going to the pool or movies, and just being out there and included made such a difference.
After working in BC for a bit, I returned to Ontario, had my daughter, and went to university. I took my first sociology course, fell in love with it, and eventually got my PhD and now teach here in BC.
Spencer: To what extent does the mindset of institutionalization and segregation still exist in BC?
Fiona: It’s still there.
Look at Harmony not passing---however they try to dress it up, what’s actually being said is ‘we don't want these people in our community". It shows ableism’s still with us, and in fact many people don’t even recognize that word because the issue's rarely addressed.
People with disabilities are still devalued. There really needs to be attitudinal change and an awareness campaign, and inclusive education's one of the most important steps in this.
"People with disabilities are still devalued"
If we can build inclusion at all levels of education, it'll not only benefit people with disabilities, but also expand out to wider community.
People who went through an inclusive education system more likely to hire disabled persons, consider their perspectives, and so on.
Spencer: Much of your work's focused on inclusive education, particularly in post-secondary - what does BC need to improve in this regard?
Fiona: All my courses include disability issues, and a majority of students in BC have no idea about the history of Woodlands, or that institutionalization continues. Disability history should be a mandatory part of the BC curriculum.
Teachers need to be taught to use the Universal Design for Learning, so they in turn can effectively teach all their students, no matter what particular needs, abilities, or learning styles those students have.
This means providing all course materials in a variety of ways, like audio recordings of readings as well as physical copies.
It also means allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge how they are most comfortable---essays, poetry, sculptures, board games, paintings, oral presentations, or whatever it may be.
Let students show their knowledge in their own way, and recognize that there are different ways of expressing knowledge. Someone with intellectual disabilities may struggle to express themselves in writing, but have outstanding artistic talents for example.
Fiona believes that our education system must give students self-determination, by letting them decide how to learn and show their knowledge,
If someone wants to take university courses, they should be able to, but people with intellectual disabilities have very few post-secondary educational options today.
The programs that do exist are often fully segregated and are completely employment based, which just puts a spotlight on the disability and keeps them excluded.
A promising program is Including All Citizens at Kwantlen. It’s the first for credit fully inclusive post-secondary program in BC, and it’s composed of normal courses with non-disabled students.
For the program we’re also working on developing a fully accessible registration system, one that's easy to complete and also doesn’t put the focus on someone’s disability by asking them all sorts of questions about it.
Spencer: Another one of your interests is how films portray persons with disabilities – which films are your favourite?
Fiona: I run a small film club called Bodies of Film, with five young adults who have intellectual disabilities, and watching films with them is a very different experience.
For example, the movie I Am Sam was criticized for continuing a trend in which characters with intellectual disabilities end up morally saving non-disabled characters and encourage them to be better people, but the film club didn’t see it that way at all.
3 of Fiona's favourite films: Crip Camp, Peanut Butter Falcon, and Freaks
He dreams of being a pro wrestler and meets Shia Labeouf’s character. They go on an adventure, and Labeouf’s character starts challenging people’s abelist ideas about what Zack's capable of, and stops seeing him as someone with a disability.
Another good one, all the way from 1932, is Freaks. It’s based backstage at a freak show, and the lead character challenges the view that these people with disabilities should be gawked at and regarded as lesser.
Spencer: You’re on the board for inclusion Canada as well. How do the issues faced across Canada compare to those here in BC?
Fiona: It’s pretty much consistent. High levels of unemployment, high levels of poverty, issues with access to education and employment—all across Canada.
That's because in all areas of Canada there still isn't a fully inclusive mindset, people with disabilities are still the others, and all of these problems will persist until we start accepting people, whether they have a disability or not, and begin to value their strengths.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to email@example.com!