Doors Open Wide

Many people talk about integration, and there are many programs that are “integrated”. But what I’ve learned over the past number of years is that just because something is marketed as integrated, it doesn’t mean it is. And, despite the best of intentions, there are more cases of integration being done poorly than there are of successful ones.

When Jacob was three years old, I enrolled him in a summer camp program that was “fully integrated”. He was placed in a cabin with typically developing kids his own age and he was accompanied by a shadow, someone we sent with him who was by his side during camp, there to help him participate. As it turned out, the counselors did not know how to include Jacob in the activities and Jake’s participation was left to his shadow to figure it out.

Since then, we have had several great experiences where Jacob is a fully involved member of the group. One notable example is his after school Hebrew program at Hebrew Academy of North York where he has been attending Tuesday afternoons for the past four years with a class full of able-bodied peers. There is no question he fits in.

The most remarkable experience though, has been the time he spends at Elkhorn Public School with his favorite teacher, Cheryl Libman (photo above). The following article was published in this week’s issue of  The Canadian Jewish News:

Doors Open Wide

This past June, my nine year-old son, Jacob, heard a school bell and experienced recess for the very first time.

Jacob is in a wheelchair. He cannot walk but loves to be pushed as fast as possible, taking turns as sharply as his chair will allow. He doesn’t talk but has little trouble letting people know what he wants and likes. He gets a thrill out of the rough and tumble play boys are known to love.

From age two to six, Jacob attended a therapy-intensive educational centre, after which I wanted him to attend our local public school so he could focus on an academic curriculum.  I was told that this plan was impossible because the building was not wheelchair accessible.  Jacob was placed in a “congregated facility”, a school where all the children have a physical disability. At first, this was ok; he had a fantastic teacher who knew how to maximize his learning potential.

I still wanted him to be around ‘regular’ kids though.

I broached this topic at Jacob’s Identification, Planning and Review Committee (IPRC) meeting last spring when everyone involved in his care met to review his school year and start planning for the upcoming one. I requested that Jacob be placed in a regular classroom for a scheduled block of time on a recurring basis. Everyone at the meeting acknowledged the benefits of reverse integration, but they were unsure about how to make it happen. There was concern about resources: his school did not have additional assistants to accompany Jacob, nor did they have a driver who could facilitate the transfer. And, most importantly, they didn’t know of another school that would welcome such an unorthodox arrangement.

I wanted this for him – over the years Jacob has had a variety of experiences with typically-developing children, and they have all been positive. He has enjoyed listening to their little voices and being included in their games. And I love that the kids have seen past Jacob’s wheels and limited movement.

A couple of weeks after the IPRC meeting, I followed up with Jacob’s principal and attempted to address each of her concerns with the hopes of finding a way to integrate Jacob.  I acknowledged the challenges in this request but felt that with some creative thinking, it might be possible. We both agreed to explore our contacts and see if we could find a placement.

We didn’t have to look far, quickly locating two schools that wanted to welcome my son. The school we chose was the one where the teacher knew Jacob from a previous year. How wonderful it would be for Jacob and Cheryl to be together again, I thought. They made a great pair: energetic, motivating and loving teacher and eager, attentive and adoring pupil.

Two days before Jacob’s first day at Elkhorn, I met with Paul, the principal. As I sat in Paul’s office and answered his questions about my son I couldn’t help but remember my not-so-fruitful conversation with another school administrator the last time I tried to have Jacob exposed to a similar type of student body when he was five years old.

“It would be too traumatic for kids to be around your son” were the words she uttered when I inquired about having some of her students attend my son’s school. At the time, her statement made me cringe with fury.

Although I knew she was wrong, a seed of doubt was planted in me. I was afraid that other people in similar positions would be equally as small-minded and I was worried about exposing my little boy to that destructive thinking.  As I recalled that disturbing conversation in Paul’s office, I physically shook my head in an effort to rid myself of those thoughts. Instead, I continued telling Paul about my son. He seemed genuinely interested and was impressed that Jacob had met Andrea Boccelli and was a pseudo-television star. It was clear to Paul that Jacob could add a lot of positive energy to his student body.

Later that day, when I explained to Jacob that Cheryl would be his teacher once a week, his mouth opened and he let out an excited scream, accompanied by some squirming in his chair. It was obvious this idea pleased him. But, two days later as we drove to the school, Jacob started protesting and making noises. When I asked if he was scared and nervous, he nodded his head. I reassured him, saying I would stay with him as long as he wanted.

As I transferred Jacob from the van to his wheelchair, Cheryl came running over to us and began enthusiastically describing the plan for the afternoon. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the excitement on my son’s face and heard the animation in Cheryl’s voice. I asked Jacob if I could leave and he didn’t hesitate before nodding his head affirmatively. I desperately wanted this event to be a success.

A few hours later, I walked into the school to pick up my son, anxious to learn how it went. I knew Jacob would be comfortable and safe with Cheryl but I wondered how the other kids would react to him. The description I received from Cheryl was only surpassed by the sights I witnessed the following week upon our return.

Students and teachers lined up to meet the newcomer. There were some questions, including “why is he wearing a wheelchair?” but these inquiries were posed with innocence and acceptance; there was no fear or trauma involved.

When I dropped him off the next time, Jacob was presented with a hand-drawn sign that read: Welcome Back Jacob. The artists were three students who had not been able to meet him the previous week but wanted to be among the first to do so upon his return. It warmed my heart to witness the little people congregated around Jacob’s wheelchair, bending down so he could see their faces as they introduced themselves. When it became apparent that Jacob thought sneezing was hysterical, the room filled with faux-sneezes in attempts to elicit Jacob’s contagious full-body laughter. The scene filled me with a sense of contentment.

So far, this unconventional arrangement has been outstanding and everyone has benefited from it. Jacob loves being around these warm and accepting children and he continues to do what he does best: grabbing the hearts of those who come close and refusing to let go.