"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

~ Niccolo Machiavelli, historian and writer

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Art of the Possible

My youngest daughter and I attended the Values, Vision and Action Workshop this past weekend, the first in a series of workshops in the Coming Together ... To Create Change: A National Family Leadership Workshop Series.

Co-hosted by both the CACL and the NSACL, it was billed as an exploration of who "we" are - as a movement, as family leaders and as agents of change.  And although the history of the Community Living movement was discussed - where it came from as a movement and the milestones that have shaped its history - as was the future of where we want to go, at the heart of the weekend was a discussion about creating good lives for our sons and daughters and all people with intellectual disabilities and what is needed to make those dreams and aspirations a reality.

I have been to many different workshops on various disability-related topics over the years and while all most have been valuable, I have found that the vast majority have tended to consistently fall short at the end of the day.  Although powerful stories and valuable information are often shared and many possible solutions are brainstormed, there never seems to be any concrete action plan created.  Instead, we all go home and individually return to the task of slogging our way through the fight of trying to ensure that our loved ones are meaningfully included in society.

And that is where this workshop felt different. 

But before we got there, I would like to share with you a realization I came to Saturday evening; namely, that for me, personally, the Saturday afternoon  program could have easily been renamed "The Art of the Possible".

We watched three separate video clips of "success stories" from across the country - in the first, a severely challenged young woman, Amber, moved from a group home into the home a former paid caregiver who had now become a real friend. This truly was a win-win situation for Amber as she now lived as a young adult in a room-mate relationship as opposed to as a child in her parent's home or in an institution, developed a second extended family who embraced her as one of their own, was clearly happy and well-cared for and once again lived nearby her biological family.

In the second clip, we met a young man, Chris, with a keen interest in all modes of public transportation - planes, boats or trains (especially trains); if it moved, he wanted to be on it.  After making the move from a group home to his own rented house for a time, he was eventually able to purchase his own home with the help and guidance of his "microboard" - a team of family, friends and service providers who worked together to secure his future. With three paid caregivers, all close in age to Chris, who worked 48-hour shifts (which gave him much more consistency and flexibility in setting his own schedule than the standard three eight-hour shifts per day), he was able to be active and engaged in his community.  And, of course, ride a lot of trains.

And although I had trouble fitting my head around the third clip, it was, perhaps, the most empowering for me, personally. Would you believe that for the past 20 years, students with intellectual disabilities have been attending University in Alberta? Not just community college, but University? Attending and actively participating in academic classes and intramural sports teams and "graduating" with a certificate right alongside their non-disabled peers?

Now I am the first to confess that I have a fair bit of difficulty seeing how that University experience could actually work for these students, but the three clips were definitely an exercise in the art of the possible for me, personally.

You see, for the past few years, we have had this semi-vague, semi-formed plan which involves our oldest daughter attending the NSCC after she finishes high school. The provincial community college system has become much more disability-friendly over the past several years, allowing students with special needs to access the accommodations necessary for them to obtain diplomas in their chosen area of study or, if they are unable to meet all the course outcomes, to participate in those portions of the curriculum that they are able and graduate with a list of employment skills. Since our oldest has a strong interest in cooking, this seemed like a plausible possibility for her future.

But a few months ago, during a conversation with her resource teachers, in which I mentioned this plan (not for the first time) in passing, for the first time, I was clearly and firmly told that the NSCC was not for my daughter. That those programs were for persons who had an aptitude in a particular area and wanted to develop some more skills. That this was not my daughter.  As I was literally walking out of the room when the comment was made, I simply observed that we would have to agree to disagree on that one. And then exited. Stage left.

And although the comment stunned me somewhat at the time, I really didn't think it had had that much effect on my thinking. But at the end of the day on Saturday, I realized that ever since that day, those remarks had been subtly working away at a subconscious level and were starting to make me doubt the appropriateness of our plan. A plan which, by the way, the student in question is not only fully behind but also very excited about.

Let's just say that is not so much so anymore. If students who are mentally challenged are successfully attending university with their more typical peers (even if that isn't an option I can picture for my oldest), who are these teachers (or anyone else for that matter) to say that community college is not an option for her, to categorically state that she can not go there?

No, were I to hear those words again, I do believe my response would be much more along the lines of 'Well, too bad what you think. She has the funding available and if she chooses to go, she will go'.

The art of the possible, indeed.

Beyond this personal epiphany, I hope to share more with you about the Conference (and how it didn't fall so short at the end of the weekend) over the next little while.  Let's hope that actually happens while the thoughts are still relatively fresh in my mind.

But for now, there is one more thing I would like to share if I may - as I said, my youngest daughter (who struggles with two diagnosed learning disabilities) attended the Conference with me. In so doing, not only did she devote her birthday weekend to attending this Conference (where she was by far the youngest and the only non-parent present), she was actually the moving force in getting both of us there; it was her who convinced me that this was an event we should must attend.

So it was that I was very proud to stand up Sunday afternoon and, on the occasion of her 15th birthday, acknowledge this child of mine in front of our fellow conference participants. She has indeed grown into quite a fine young lady.

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