CW: Fluid Restriction & Ableism
Michelle Cousins accompanies her 14-year-old daughter Colette to school every day. Cousins meets her bus at Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School in north Toronto. She assists Colette in her wheelchair before parking her van on a nearby street.
She stays until the end of the school day. She stays in case she needs to assist her daughter, who has arthrogryposis. Arthrogryposis is a broad term for the development of nonprogressive contractures affecting one or more parts of the body before birth. A contracture is a condition in which a joint becomes permanently stuck in a bent (flexed) or straightened (extended) position. This limits the movement of the affected joint totally or partially.
Cousins has been sitting in her van every school day since September in case Colette needs her assistance going to the restroom. Assisting a student with activities of daily living is something paraprofessionals generally do. Still, it’s the greatest option for Colette’s dignity, she adds, until the school and the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) come up with a better alternative.
According to Cousins, there are only two educational assistants who can help Colette get out of her wheelchair when necessary. If they are absent, there is no guarantee that trained staff will be available. Furthermore, the school’s support equipment has either been broken or is too large to fit in the restroom, according to Cousins.
Colette isn’t the only disabled student experiencing difficulties at school across the province. According to a prominent advocate, one in every six kids in Ontario has a disability, and they often confront physical, technological, and bureaucratic obstacles that hinder their education.
Even though the school verified Colette’s admittance in the spring and had her accommodation needs assessed this summer, Cousins says she’s resorted to assuming the support role to provide her daughter with a regular high school experience among bureaucratic and labor challenges.
In an email to CBC Toronto, the TCDSB stated that it works with parents and students on a case-by-case basis to address specific needs following the province’s principal disability rights legislation, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
Due to privacy laws, the Board emphasizes that it cannot discuss specific situations. It does, however, state that Colette’s high school has an elevator, an accessible restroom, working equipment, and support staff available to assist students with disabilities.
Cousins, though, refutes most of that, and a prominent advocate for individuals with disabilities in Ontario argues these challenges cannot be addressed solely at the board level.
Throughout my school years, I encountered numerous challenges. Sometimes, teachers didn’t understand the accommodations outlined in my IEP. In middle school, during home economics, the teacher refused to give me an alternative assignment. My paraprofessional completed the sewing project while I watched. Jokingly, I told her that she had earned an A when my report card arrived in the mail.
I was incredibly fortunate to have the same paraprofessional for a decade. I was always comforted by her presence while at school. However, when she was absent, it was nerve-wracking for me. I never knew who would be assigned to me that day. Most of the people I worked with were caring and understood my needs. There were a few instances when my parents came to school to help me use the restroom. A few times, my mother carried me upstairs when the school’s elevator wasn’t working.
Growing up, I used the restroom in school once a day. I never wanted to inconvenience the paraprofessionals the school paid to assist me with personal needs. Therefore, I learned to limit my fluid intake while at school. I felt bad enough that I needed somebody’s help with such personal tasks.
In particular, during my senior year of high school, I was assigned someone I wasn’t fond of. It felt like I was a burden to her. Once during Spanish class, I had to use the restroom. She was upset because it wasn’t my usual time to use the bathroom. After that, I never asked her for help using the bathroom again.
Unfortunately, millions of students with disabilities struggle to get the support they need in school. Education is not one size fits all. Every student should be able to receive an education, regardless of their needs. We can’t expect students to receive a meaningful education if they don’t have what they need to be successful.
“Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita.” NORD (National Organization for Rare Disorders), National Institutes of Health, 19 July 2019, https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/arthrogryposis-multiplex-congenita/.
Balintec, Vanessa. “This Toronto Mom Says She Has to Sit Outside Her Child’s School All Day. Here’s Why | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 28 Oct. 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/washoom-accessibility-toronto-school-1.6630161.