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By Rebecca Blissett (she/her), Rick Hansen Foundation

For Emerson Potter to join his outdoor gym class at Blewett Elementary School in Nelson, BC, he had to drive his power wheelchair off school grounds, travel up nearby Blewett Road, and then go through an access gate to get to the sports field.

Emerson just turned nine, is in Grade 4, and was born with cerebral palsy, affecting motor control. While Emerson can walk short distances independently, he primarily uses his wheelchair to get around.

The lack of accessibility is frustrating. Going the long way around to the field is just that—long. It is five times the distance for him to travel than the rest of his class who can bound up the outdoor stairs from the school building to the field.

Emerson decided to do something about this barrier for himself and other students and educators with mobility challenges. He wrote a letter to School District 8 and met with the director of operations. Together, the team hatched a plan to construct a path to the field and improve access to the ground’s tennis courts.

Emerson was happy to see the finished path when school was back in session this September. 

“It feels good. It feels good,” Emerson said. “I really don’t know how else to describe it.”

Advocating has helped Emerson in more ways than one. His mom Lindsay noted that he is far more comfortable talking about his disability than before speaking up about the need for an accessible path to the sports field.

“As Emerson grows up and has more encounters, he’s going to start to realize how many things need to be advocated for,” said Lindsay. “So, as a parent, this was a good experience for him to be able to voice his needs to other people. And, talk about his disability, because that’s not always an easy thing to do.”

Taking the initiative to make a difference in improving accessibility and inclusion at his school is why Emerson is a recipient of a 2021 Rick Hansen Foundation School Program (RHFSP) Difference Maker of the Year Award. The awards are inspired by the RHFSP lessons of the same name that are part of an online resource library of easy-to-use lessons and activities offered for free to educators.

The library has a variety of engaging resources to help teach children and youth about accessibility, inclusion, and being difference makers in our schools and communities. An example of these lessons is Everyone Has Abilities, where students identify both their abilities and challenges and discuss how much we can tell (and can’t tell) about a person just by looking at them.

Whether it’s activities, lessons, tool-kits, videos, books, or the popular Ambassador presentations where a person with a disability “Zooms” into a classroom to facilitate a conversation about inclusion, the RHFSP materials introduce the idea of ability to young Canadians who may not have met any of the one in five Canadians living with a disability. The presentations and other program resources aim to open minds and hearts, allowing children and youth to develop compassion, empathy, and kindness.

Educational tools that promote inclusivity and diversity have proven to help students feel welcomed and accepted, which creates a better learning environment. Promoting kindness also helps reduce incidents of all kinds of bullying. According to a 2019 Statscan study, 42% of youth with a disability have experienced bullying at school because of their condition. This increases to 62% among those with a more severe disability.1

RHFSP’s lessons and activities, developed with input from educators, can be adapted into any study, such as math, science, language, or arts. They’re available in English and French at rickhansenfoundation.com under the Schools & Communities tab, where you’ll find the resource library.

Everybody can accomplish extra-ordinary things by thinking and acting beyond their interests. It doesn’t matter how small the action. Like Emerson, we can all make a difference.

Calling all Difference Makers!

Do you know a student or a colleague who helps make the world a better place by improving access and inclusion for people with disabilities? Nominate them for a 2022 RHFSP Difference Maker of the Year award. Nominations are open until 12:00 a.m. PST (midnight), April 24, 2022, by filling out the online nomination form. Winners will be announced during National AccessAbility Week from May 29 to June 4, 2022.

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine