Times have changed from the 1970’s and so has how we include individuals with disabilities. I write as a sister who witnessed how my older sister was a part of these changes. When many children would be attending kindergarten or daycare, I remember accompanying my parents as they went to various places to have my sister tested. Can she speak, listen, comprehend, walk and balance on one foot? Following the assessment, I remember her moving away from home when she was about 5 and half, to go live at Woodlands in British Columbia. When we would pick her up for a family visit, I can recall seeing the padded rooms, people with helmets, some in wheelchairs while I was walking the halls to get to the children’s ward. While at Woodlands, she was taken on a bus out of the institution to attend a special school, which was a rarity at this time. Our father recalls while driving to work catching a glimpse of her, alone on the bus as she went to school.
There was something different about her class pictures from mine. Her classes were smaller and only had people with disabilities, mine were larger and did not have anyone with a disability. Yet, when I would visit her class, the children were much like my friends and I, laughing, curious and engaged with the learning materials around them. She would learn life skills, while I learned reading, writing and arithmetic.
In the 1980’s plans were set for Woodlands to close and the residents were going to be moved out to smaller group homes. The group home that my sister went to was part of the neighbourhood, which enabled the residents to be part of the community as they went on walks, to the grocery store, enjoyed meals out and attended day programs.
I remember the impact of my sister’s assessments on my mother and how it would send her into depression. The assessment focused on things my sister could not do and may never do. Yet, my sister had many talents, which did not show up on assessments. She had the ability to notice when people were sad, angry or quiet and would ask…‘you happy?’ She remembered people she met and called everyone a friend. When she saw someone trying, she encouraged them, for she knew it was about being part of something and being a friend that matters.
Times have changed; gone are large locked institutions, now we see people with disabilities working, socializing, and enjoying life as a part of our neighbourhood, schools and families.