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The Evolution of Access Without Borders (Equity and Women's Services)

Shelley Whittaker

In 2006, as the social justice chair of my local, I attended the ETFO annual leadership  conference. The  two-day event ignited my interest in equity work. From that point forward, I began seeking  additional opportunities  to learn and to evolve  in  my  awareness  and  understanding of equity issues. I regularly attended workshops and conferences offered by ETFO’s Equity  and Women’s Services. After three years as a participant, I was asked if I would be willing to assist in facilitating a workshop on disability issues for ETFO members.

When first asked to be a workshop  presenter, I felt  reservations. I was acutely aware that  I was not an expert or a  specialist. I have been a teacher for 13  years; for seven of  these  I have had the  privilege of  teaching in  a  special education  classroom, and I believe passionately in the  ability of  my  students. But  I found myself wondering  if  I would have enough  knowledge to facilitate a group of colleagues. I quickly realized I would need to set aside my fears and trust in the processes of  active inquiry and collaboration.

I was paired with a colleague, Victoria Nolan, one of the  creators of the first ETFO disabilities  issues workshop, Access Without  Borders. Vicky and I were provided with a day to meet and begin planning for  our upcoming workshop. We were presenting  to new teachers –  teachers with five years of experience or less.  We decided to focus on providing a basic framework  for  participants to assist them in furthering their understanding of the various categories and types of disabilities and of the IPRC  (Identification,  Placement,  and Review Committee) and IEP (Individual Education Plan) processes. We would also share information on the tools available to provide support for students with special  needs and at-risk learners. In addition, we would provide participants  with an assortment of take-home resources to  assist with the development of  an IEP  –  specifically, tools to assist with the development of annual goals, learning  expectations, and accommodations.

In  planning our initial  workshop, Vicky and I agreed that  interaction and  dialogue would be key to our success and to active participant engagement. As time has passed, and both Vicky and  I  have ventured off  to present our own ever-evolving versions of Access Without Bordersactive engagement of participants has remained a  constant.  Time for  dialogue and  discussing scenarios is essential, and gives participants the chance to learn  from  one another, to seek new strategies and ideas, and to reframe  their thinking  around specific students and  student needs. In  all sessions participants  have been ready and willing  to ask difficult questions, seek answers, and  look for ways to best meet the needs of the learners in their care.

One recurring challenge that  members  raise is  providing effective programming  for students with special needs  when the classroom  teacher is away. Occasional  teachers attending our workshops often  tell  us  that  one  of  the   greatest challenges to  their  day is  the  lack of  information available about students with special needs. Occasional   teachers  consistently  communicate the  importance of  classroom teachers leaving behind detailed information that clarifies  needs,  strengths,  and  strategies  for success, as well as triggers to avoid when dealing with students with special needs and exceptionalities. This can make a difference for the individual student and teacher, and have a positive impact on students and on the  overall integrity of the classroom  learning environment.

While  the  Access  Without  Borders workshop is  a  wonderful introduction to  the basic framework  of  meeting the needs of our learners with special needs, there  are  many  additional  challenges relating to resources,  accessibility, funding, and community support.

Students with  special needs,  their families, teachers, and allies continually find themselves  in the role of advocate. This  can  be  challenging,  demanding work. It would be wonderful to see ETFO further explore the challenges surrounding accessibility of resources and funds to  support students with special needs, to contrast rural and urban challenges, and to work with our own members who self-identify  as  having  a  disability  to determine what would make our schools more equitable and inclusive, not only for our students, but for our members.