Moira D’Aoust has spent her career leading the cause for inclusive access to licensed childcare for children with special needs in the region of Ottawa. Moira’s authentic belief that all children belong in and have the right to quality childcare has positioned her to be a leader not only in the city of Ottawa but as a visionary throughout the province of Ontario. As she prepares to leave Children’s Integration Support Services (CISS), she met with some of her colleagues over a pot of tea and baked goodies to highlight stories of her journey’s challenges and successes as well as her dreams for the future.
Q. Before CISS started 25 years ago, what supports and programs were available for parents in the community?
At the very beginning of my career, the system to support inclusion didn’t exist at all. Families who had a child with special needs faced hard decisions when told to institutionalize them. In the continuum of the inclusion story, institutionalisation was really the beginning. From there, the families that had made the decision not to send their child to an institution were the beginning of a segregated model. Parents had a right to make a choice and that still stands true today.
As of 1973 there were 10 developmental centers that were funded by the Ministry of Community and Social Services throughout the province including one in Ottawa. That’s where my journey started. Families of children age 3 to 19 who had lived in isolation and without any services or access to school due to their child/youth’s special needs, were brought together. From there, families started to talk and advocate for more. Many families made the decision that one partner would become the advocate at the systems level to have a voice and those parents really were the trailblazers of the many services that now exist.
Q. When the Ottawa & District Association for the Mentally Retarded (ODAMR) and the Regional Municipality of Ottawa Carleton (RMOC) came together under one system, what were some of the more immediate goals and challenges?
Through a review process of the segregated and the integrated systems, families expressed their child’s needs were being met but their family’s needs for access and supported childcare were not. Inclusion under the RMOC was very selective in who could be integrated and there were significant waiting lists for both systems. Children had to travel to where that resource teacher was, have some means of communication, be close to if not totally potty trained, be able to walk with minimal support and manage in the regular child staff ratio when the Resource Teacher was not available.
26 years ago ODAMR informed their staff that they would divest themselves from operating the specialized nursery schools. There was no time for community development or to create a new agency. That is when the Regional Municipality of Ottawa Carleton (RMOC) and the Ministry of Community and Social Services started to look for agencies that had a good track record of developing programs, policies and procedures and Andrew Fleck Child Care Services (AFCCS) was approached.
AFCCS became the visionary operator of the new inclusion model and through attrition, children moved out of the segregated programs releasing funding to create the beginning of CISS. I was hired initially as the manager of the segregated program through AFCCS and Susan Spence was the placement coordinator for the integrated program. It was visionary that the new model brought Susan and I together in order to move forward. That was our grassroots beginning, with two telephones on the floor that started ringing the day we turned up, and we haven’t stopped in all of these years, we’ve never really had a down time. We stayed true to the community review vision to stay flexible and responsive.
During our intake process, we asked parents what they needed as a family, what they felt their child needed, and with parents’ permission we asked the child care program what they needed. From that, we created a support plan which is still relevant today. Child care programs really wanted training and that became an important part of what we did.
At the beginning, people were really skeptical. When you support inclusion, it’s all about building relationships and trust. Inclusion truly is defined by a sense of mutuality and respect. We were questioned on how an Anglophone program that sits in the afternoon having a cup of tea could really service and support Francophone families and the Francophone community. We have successfully done that over the years, with great integrity. We worked so hard to address all the questions and concerns.
Q. When did the terminology and language start changing from integration to inclusion?
I think it’s through life experience, I can’t think of a date. It’s our learning curve as adults to understand that integration is a thought, a concept. Children have a right to be integrated. Being in the same room is not being inclusive as you can be very segregated in an integrated opportunity which we have all seen. I think for myself, I was only limited by my knowledge and the more I resourced myself and learned, the more I could focus on the possibilities and not the disabilities.
Q. Moira, you have been an amazing leader and you have done a fabulous job at mentoring us. Have you come to this position with mentors of your own?
44 years ago at the Developmental Centre, I learned something that I carried me throughout my career. It’s not one discipline or one profession that has all the answers; we’re only as good as the sum of all the parts. Within the framework of that program there were 3 individuals that really mentored me; Phyllis Levin (Physiotherapist), Jane Boni (Occupational Therapist) and Nan Dauphine (Speech Language Pathologist). Together we created a transfer of knowledge and the ability to not feel threatened or draw lines. It was about making a difference and making sure that we always paired the recommendation with training. Dennise Albrecht with the Child and Youth Health Network was also a wonderful mentor. She was our community’s gift, by believing in possibilities and being a visionary always looking at cross sectoral possibilities to address gaps.
The children, each one has taught me something; to be respectful and to really listen to them. The parents, who at the core were the best mentors for me; honouring their child by sharing their knowledge, hopes and desires with me. That really has stayed with me.
Q. What would be one of your proudest moments of your career?
When I realized I could make a difference in working with children and that it doesn’t have to be something huge. I’m very proud of what we’ve created as a group when thinking of CISS. The creation of the Positive Outcomes Program (POP) which was a result of a lot of thought, respect, problem solving and discussion. Our ability to have our ear to the ground and pay attention to the changing landscape.
I also celebrate every time we have a conference because it’s our way of continuing to inspire but also appreciate the hard work done by ECE’s, providers, home child care consultants and the CISS team. I really think those are markers in my journey.
Q. Moira you are a visionary, what do you hope will continue and what do you hope will change regarding inclusion in the community?
I would hope that all children belong is not just lip service. I worry about that. I’m really encouraged with How Does Learning Happen (HDLH) and how it allows for reflective practice, embedding that into the expectations to support ECE’s to be the best that they can be.
I hope the educational system that supports both teachers and early childhood educators take a look at what they are sharing in those learning institutions. So that graduates understand they are going to be teaching all children. You don’t get to pick who’s in your class, or their learning styles. You need to have strategies in your pocket or at least know its ok to ask for help.
I think that the existing model remains the foundation for supported inclusion and I hope the core values, beliefs and practices stay. My dream would be that children with medical needs be a part of supported inclusion. That’s one thing that didn’t happen and we sure worked hard on it.
Q. What suggestions would you give parents and directors of child care programs, to assist them in advocating for children with special needs?
When you have a child with special needs, you have to support yourself with resiliency and figure out mechanisms such as building respite opportunities for yourself. There’s still a lot of work to be done on advocacy and what comes to mind are children who turn 12 and age out of child care. They’re falling right back into social isolation. With new funding, I’d love our model to move into supporting that age group with a completely different model in recreation programs to create more opportunities for families at the neighborhood level. That would make a difference because families are at risk.
I would encourage parents and child care programs to work together and be realistic of what you expect parents to do. For directors; be present on the floor, access resources and supports to help your teaching team to be the best that they can be. Overall, work together, problem solve and celebrate each success. The list just gets longer and longer and if you don’t take the time to acknowledge the gains; your own resiliency could be at stake. Continue to be nimble, flexible and responsive, that’s a healthy approach to what we do.
In supporting advocacy in the community, my vision is that we’re able to work with the Ministry of Education to have a train the trainer model for our modules that we know make a difference in capacity building that can be shared with other special needs resource programs.
I would love for the early intervention and resource teacher program to be offered at our community colleges; we need it. Whether you ever go into a role as a resource consultant or not, the content of those courses are invaluable for ECE’s to access and it would only help them hone their skills and increase their level of understanding.
Q. Looking into the future of inclusion, what message or words of wisdom would you like to share with the community?
One child, one family, one child care program at a time. Look at the possibilities, don’t get stuck on the disabilities. Don’t assume everybody gets it, we’re not there; inclusion is a process. Continue to work on reducing social isolation for families and children so that children are seen as children first. Be cognisant of any systems changes and how this impacts children, families and service delivery. Continue to listen to parents and respond with compassion and knowledge to support them to be their child’s best advocate. It’s so simply put but I think that’s at the core of what we do.