the day i sobbed at the bakery

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I stopped by Gabi & Jules bakery yesterday to pick up an almond croissant and a maple pecan pie. By the end of my transaction, I was sobbing at the front counter, barely able to eke out any words, my face hot and embarrassed by my unexpected show of emotion.

Before the crying, I was perfectly composed and waiting in line to order my baked goods. There was a young man in front of me. I could tell he wanted to chat, so I turned and faced him and smiled. ‘All the food here is good!’ he said. ‘Have you tried everything?’ I asked. ‘YES!,’ he said, bursting to tell me.  ‘I work here! In the back.’

Now I could feel the tears beginning to well up. I swallowed them back as we chatted a bit more.   This young man had some sort of disability – autism maybe – but that doesn’t really matter. He was obviously very proud that he worked in the bakery.

Being employed is so much more than just a pay-cheque – it can offer a sense of value, worth and belonging.   This particular bakery in Port Moody is well known for its inclusive hiring practices. (Here’s a video and article explaining their philosophy).

After the young man left, I mentioned to the nice woman working behind the counter (Sarah, the manager) that my husband recently heard owner Lisa Beecroft speak at a panel for inclusive employment. I kept it together until this point, until I confessed, ‘Our son is 14 and he has Down syndrome. I hope one day an employer like you will give him a chance.’ Then my voice caught and the tears started to seep out. I managed to finish up before fleeing to my car, but not before Sarah said: ‘Bring your son in one day so he can look around!’ This made me cry even more. I’m sure she thought I was odd (and admittedly I am, especially since the dumb cancer, which seems to have broken me open emotionally).

When Aaron was born, I was clouded in many fears for his life: that he wouldn’t find love or belonging or friends or meaningful work. To be truthful, we are still working on helping him with his search for many of these things. I feel hope in my heart for the future with companies like Gabi & Jules taking a chance on all different kinds of people.

I started going to Gabi & Jules because I heard they hired people with disabilities and I wanted to support them. But now I’m a regular there because the baking is just so damn good. (The hazelnut tarts! The granola! And oh the pies). And now that I’ve met one of the bakers in the back, I have a strong sense, as their logo says, the maple pecan pie we ate last night was made with love.

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*Coming up next week! A special guest blog post from my husband, Mike Waddingham, talking about inclusive employment practices.

what inclusion means to me

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I’ve been agonizing over preparing a presentation all week.  For creating a talk is like crafting a story – it is carefully pieced together to engage the audience early on, to create a safe space for listening, to allow them to feel.  This is trickier than you might think.  I say this from hard-fought experience of crashing and burning onstage – misreading your audience is the absolutely worst thing you can do when you are behind a podium.  I live in fear of it.  This is a hell of a way to make a living.

I was asked to speak to all the teachers at my son’s high school about What Inclusion Means to Me.  There would be about one hundred educators in the audience on their Pro-D day.  I sweated out my approach, talking to the teacher in the Access Program (Burnaby’s special ed) who had kindly recommended me, the physics teacher who was the organizer, and many families who had kids with differences in schools across the provinces.  I was desperate to understand my audience, to not misstep, to represent other families well, for I had a lot of skin in the game.  This is the high school where Aaron would be for the next six years.  I could not screw this up.

I had spoken once before to a teacher/parent audience on this same subject, almost three years ago in Alberta.  My stumble then was not to include any research about the other kids in the school – the ‘typically developing’ kids, many of whom were travelling on a strong academic path.  One mom had angrily protested from the back of the room:  your kid is taking away from my kid’s teaching time!  I have recognized over the years that it is crucial to address barriers and concerns that the audience is holding early on in the presentation, for if you don’t, they hang onto those concerns during the entire talk, and this is a barrier to the listening.

This time I was more grizzled and wiser (but alas, still not perfect – is there really such a thing?).  I drew upon others for expertise in my talk.  I don’t know one thing about adapting or modifying curriculum, so I showed Shelley Moore’s great bowling video.  I leaned on Ian Brown’s wisdom about the value of people with disabilities.  The moms from my Family Inclusion Group Facebook page kindly offered up some wonderful quotes about our kids being brave, and presuming competence.  I remembered the young man, Ryan, who has autism and graduated with my daughter three years ago, and read that little essay.  Two local family leaders, Karen Copeland and Suzanne Perrault, helped me immensely with pep talks and information. I was very aware of not being self-serving – not only concerning myself with my own son’s experience, but with his colleagues’ experiences, too:  those who used wheelchairs, those who were non-verbal, those identified with ‘behaviour’ challenges.   I had many people behind me in spirit for this extraordinary opportunity:  for a mom taking up a morning in a high school’s Pro-D day is a rare sight indeed.

And what does inclusion mean to me?  In the end, I talked about our journey with Aaron – from when he was first diagnosed (the baby we expected was not the baby we got) to my struggles with my own fears about people with disabilities when Aaron was born, embedded in my head from my junior high days in 1974 (if you are going to have a stereotype, at least have an up-to-date stereotype).  I acknowledged the good work teachers do – how busy and exhausted they are too, and asked them to reflect on their why – why they chose teaching.  I talked about how inclusion was so much more than academic inclusion inside a classroom, how it was about inclusion in the hallways, at lunchtime, at school events, in sports, in extra-curricular activities.  I invited the audience to think of one way educators and the other students could include the kids from the Access Program in the school, no matter how simple:  learning the kids’ names, giving high fives, starting up a Buddy program, picking one thing from their class lesson to teach them each day.

My goodness, as I write this out, I realized I covered a lot of ground.  I’d had better practice what I preach about presentations, and that is:  Identify your intention.  Pick three key messages.  Know thy audience.

My intention was to touch hearts to change minds.  My key messages were about the value of children with disabilities (the disabled do the work of love, says Ian Brown), expanding the definition of diversity to include different abilities, and to point out how we are not preparing the high-achieving students for the real world if they do not know people who are ‘the other.’

I had to pause a few times during the talk to catch myself from crying.  This topic is deeply personal to me, as Aaron’s school experience is everything to us.  We chose to live in Burnaby based on the school district.  We bought a condo close to the school.  I resigned from my job to be more visible and available to support his school experience.

Scanning the audience, I knew others were crying too.  Maybe they had someone with a difference in their family.  Maybe they were remembering the feeling of being left out.  Maybe they were triggered to recall why they chose teaching.  At the end, the applause was more than polite, and I had a patient line of teachers waiting to chat with me.  It tears me up to think about how much these educators want to reach all children, but sometimes they just don’t know how.  This desire is everything.  Change happens with just one step at a time – the first step is the most important one.   This is the beginning of belonging, one high five at a time.

Inclusion to me means finding love + belonging.  It means taking the time to understand another person’s perspective, to feel empathy, to demonstrate compassion.  These are the exact same messages I share with health care audiences, as I’ve realized that these concepts are deeply universal.

In the end, for me, everything always circles back to Raymond Carver:

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Beloved on this earth.  That’s what I want for my children, for myself, and for you too.  xo.

behind the boy in the moon

I wept during Ian Brown’s plenary talk on Tuesday at the CAPHC conference. Big wet tears leaked through my mascara. I stopped myself just short of audible sobbing.

Towards the end of Ian’s closing words, I peeked at the audience around me. To my surprise, they were crying too: researchers, academics, administrators, physicians – those of impressive titles, but all people too. I pulled my tissues out of my mom purse and passed them around my table.

I knew why I was weeping, but I wasn’t clear on the reason for their tears. I am the parent of a young man who has an intellectual disability. I, too, have a little dream of a community of love for Aaron, like Ian’s dream for his son Walker.  But clearly my professional colleagues had their hearts touched and their tears triggered for different reasons – perhaps they were thinking about one of their past patients, or an aunt or an uncle, or even about their own vulnerability. I’ll never know.

Ian’s talk, although centred on people with intellectual disabilities (finally, they had airtime on a stage) was also a talk about what makes us human. And that’s not success or competition (as many of my accomplished friends are engaged in), but instead he expressed what makes us human is simply love and belonging. People with intellectual disabilities understand that deeply. As Ian said, the disabled do the work of love.

I can’t adequately summarize his talk. It was a profound homage to people with intellectual disabilities – the likes of which I have never bore witness to before.

I heard Ian speak in 2009, also in Halifax, also at CAPHC, and knew him to be brutally honest and real – unafraid and apologetic – refreshingly with no reverence for the graduate degrees and fancy titles that filled the room. I knew Tuesday’s talk would be important, and delayed my flight home until the next morning to see him. I knew it would be an important talk and it was.

The whole pediatric health conference had been focused on fixing: deciding who was worthy of fixing and funding; research focused on helping families to fix their children; and a session mocking patients who were trying to fix themselves by turning to alternative medicine.

All this fixing talk made me unsettled by Tuesday afternoon, after crashing from my high from Sunday’s CFAN Symposium. In stark contrast, Ian told the health care audience to stop trying to fix his son, to “pay attention to the person he actually is”. He continued, “Let us put medical care behind human interaction. Let us build communities that are much less bureaucratic, much more inclusive…and that embrace and celebrate the beautiful grace of people like Walker.”

Ian Brown was a messenger for love and belonging – the two things that really matter in health care – the only way we are going to see our way through the big costly bloody mess that is our health care system. He was an eloquent poet, each phrase carefully chosen, spoken straight from his Dad heart, passionate and poignant. I furiously scratched snippets in my notebook. About his son: what value does Walker’s broken life have?

About building a community: for once the disabled would have a home with a great view…where all you have to do is keep company with one another.

In the end, Ian challenged us to join the intellectually disabled and be touched by the grace of who people actually are, not by who we think they should be.

Later that night, I FaceTimed Aaron: ‘Hi Mom!’ he said brightly, his round face and almond eyes lighting up the screen, ‘How was your day?’ I was struck by the gift that is my son, by the very fact that he was born, that he is with us, that he is human. There are so few people who understand him in this world. He shows us the path to love every single day, over and over again. If only we can adopt enough humility to push our own egos aside to clearly hear what he’s trying to say.

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from cruise ship to dinghy

Slide1There’s a familiar saying that floats around the our world about education services for our kids.  It speaks directly to moving from the preschool to the elementary school experience – we call it jumping from a cruise ship to dinghy, because almost all the therapy support from the schools dries up after kindergarten.

I was preparing to speak as a mom about transitions Saturday at a CHILD-BRIGHT workshop.  Now ‘transitions’ is a term the health professional world loves, and it is a more evolved term about being discharged from one service and moving into another.  (I especially detest the word ‘discharged’ and I’m glad they are moving away from it – as it reminds me of nasal discharge or discharge of the vaginal kind, or being spit out at the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, a la Being John Malkovich).

The word ‘transitions’ to me means change.  The professionals tend to put their own provider-centred lens on that, assuming this means moving from one of their programs to another.  To me, families should be the ones identifying what transitions are important to them.  For instance, for me, moving from the end of the school year to summer is a horrible transition, as I have to dig around trying to find childcare for my son so I can go to work. (This year I failed at that).  Another transition would be our move to a new home earlier this summer.  My boy’s adulthood is impending, so I’ve run around, panicked, trying to find my son a family doctor who will see him as he turns 19.  Each school year brings a new transition, with a new teacher and new Educational Assistants in Aaron’s life.  These are the transitions that matter to me.

I’ve never been accused of being subtle.  To take the cruise ship to dinghy metaphor a bit further, I created this cheeky image (above) which I showed to the workshop audience, a group of researchers and health professionals.

For me, this is what services for families and children with disabilities looks like throughout the years.  The last image is yes, someone drowning – and that is what looming adulthood feels like.  As I told the audience, the most important part of their work is to get a deep realization about what it feels like to be a family member afloat at sea. Change will only happen once they feel what we feel.  As pediatrician and IHI co-founder Don Berwick says in his 2014 book of his keynote presentations called Promising Change:

…”(change will happen)…when we realize that our white coats and our dark suits are disguises…our next big step is not to just serve people but to join them.

Services in the system – from cruise ship to drowning.  Pause for a moment to join me to feel what that might feel like to a family who has a child with a disability.  When that feeling finally touches your heart, then we can start to talk about change.

the leave

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Each morning we wake up at our leisure, sit on the red couch and write our plan for the day in my little coil scribbler.

It often starts with an egg salad sandwich for breakfast and moves to ‘Mom work’ which means me closing myself in a windowless office for two hours to write while Aaron watches obnoxiously-loud Johnny Test on TV.  Then electronics off and we begin our time together.  The day stretches out before us like a prairie sky.

My mantras this summer, the summer of my leave, are this:
1. Stay in the moment
2. Move at Aaron’s pace

I rue the day 15 years ago when I said, in response to yelling at my then 5 + 8 year old children:  I wish I was a more patient mom.  The Baby Gods heard me and two years later they brought me a third child named Aaron.  I’ve calculated a direct correlation:  the faster I try to move Aaron along, the slower he goes.

So slow we go.  We pick one nature outing a day and sandwich that with meals, errands and meandering strolls.  I distinctly feel as if I’ve regressed ten years and am at home with a toddler instead of a budding teenager.  Aaron craves both routine and unstructured time with his people of comfort.  Why did I think I could sign him up for a variety of day camps, just like other moms do with their kids?  This year is a stark reminder that I am not just like other moms and Aaron is not just like other kids.  Even in contemplating this complex web of summer childcare arrangements, I was in denial about our differences. This leave is my humbling, a sign that I was getting too big for my britches.  It also shows me how a lack of childcare options for older children with disabilities pushes families into poverty.  (But that is another topic for another time).

So here we are, making lemonade out of life.  Despite the adolescent defiance, the need to negotiate every move and the mortification of being seen with his mother in public, he sidles up to me at least once a day and says, I love you Mom.  Other days, This is the best day ever.   His relief at not being dropped off at a different summer camp every week, complete with a different routine and different people, is palpable.  And that’s gotta be enough.  Enough for the lost income and the stalled career, for if you really try to live in the moment, you know the moments are soon over and then they are simply gone.

We’ve gone for hikes by canyons with little cousins, played an excessive amount of mini-golf, brought our bird book to the sanctuary to identify our feathered friends, munched on popcorn in dark air conditioned movie theatres.  Right now, I’m sitting on a log by the dog beach (is there anything more glorious than a beach of dogs?) and Aaron has buried himself deep in the coastline forest, emerging victorious with found sticks and talking to them as if they are people, as he’s apt to do.

I’ll add to my mantras ‘Be Weird’ as my boy is often weird (at least to the typically-developing eye) and I struggle with that reality, particularly in public.  My own deep-rooted 13 year old awkward teenage girl fear of being judged pops right to the surface.  When I ask him:  Why are you making that funny sound? he wisely and matter-of-factly tells me:  It is the Down syndrome way.

Today he picked up a black rock and announced:  This is an asteroid!   Then he scrambled up on a big ocean rock and yelled:  THIS ROCK IS REALLY INTENSE MOM!  Last night, munching on a chorizo taco:  This meal is phenomenal!  He doesn’t stop talking in exclamation marks, except when presented with direct questions from boring adults.

[Many years ago, when Aaron was two, I belonged to a playgroup of kids with disabilities. I remember complaining that Aaron would not stop saying:  mom mom mom mom all the time.  Another mom looked at me with sadness in her eyes and said:  I wish my daughter would say my name, even once.  Her little girl had Angelman syndrome and did not talk at all.  I hung my head in shame, my face flush with my own stupidity.  It was the first of many reminders to watch my words and count my blessings].

Aaron couples his love of language with a never-ending string of knock knock jokes:

Aaron: Knock knock.
Me:  Who is there?
Aaron:  G.
Me:  G who?
Aaron:  God.

Me:  Huh?  That’s it?  God?  What does that mean?
Aaron:  … {Shrugs. Sly grin}.

All children offer up both joy and pain, happy and sad.  If I uncensor myself, I will confess that it is easier to be at my work:  dressed up, adult, respected, uninterrupted in the washroom. In my leave I have left that.  I am dressed down, a mom, invisible and interrupted in the washroom.

Aaron and I have eight more weeks together, but I am going to stop counting.  Life, I tip my hat to you: I’ve been knocked off my pedestal once again, but I want to tell you that the view down here ain’t half-bad.

Genetic Discrimination is a Real Thing

I have taken a few days to reflect on this column that was published in the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, called Genetic Testing Bill Perpetuates Myths and Fears.

I’m still scratching my head over this piece’s single-minded approach. There’s no perspective offered from the community that is affected by genetic testing, only this sarcastic comment:

As Timothy Caulfield, the research director at the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, notes, there have been a lot of apocalyptic predictions about the evils of genetics: The decoding of the human genome (in 2003) has led to fears about designer babies, armies of clones and pervasive discrimination that creates a genetic underclass.

It is here that I must loudly protest.  My son has a genetic syndrome.  He and others in his community have experienced discrimination their entire lives, beginning with the health system where some physicians butcher the disclosure of a prenatal diagnosis to women, moving to societal discrimination directed towards my child with a genetic difference, manifested in the simple drying up of birthday party invitations and the more serious bullying in school settings.

I realize this column is about employers and insurers utilizing genetic information for discrimination.  So let’s move away from the real life examples of discrimination into the policy realm, shall we?  In our lived experience, here is where the discrimination resides:

Health care policy
Health services administered by our publicly funded health system vary wildly province to province depending on your genetic diagnosis. In my son’s case, he’s not ‘disabled enough’ to access publicly funded respite, home care programs, speech, physical therapy or occupational therapy services.  If you are fortunate enough to have money, you can only access these health services through the private system by paying out of pocket for services for your child.  It is here that the policy interpretation of the Canada Health Act fails our children.  Plus, we have stupid policies about IQ testing used to prove health care need.  That’s not discriminatory, is it?  Or is it?

Education
Well, if you want your kid with a genetic difference to learn, you’d better be willing and able to cough up the funds for private classes (or private school) because while the inclusive policies in our public education system are written to sound fantastic, there seems to be no measurement informing us how those policies are executed in the classrooms.   Again, here is an example of inconsistent application of policy in real life.  The school can’t teach our son to read, so the last batch of private programs cost us $960 for 12 sessions.  But that’s ok, right?

Social Services
Are you a parent of a child with a genetic difference and needs to or wants to work?  In British Columbia, that’s too bad!  Policy for supported childcare spots dictates that you require extra funding for your child to access childcare, and that funding is limited and also entails a waiting list that is years long!  After age 13, there is no childcare at all because everybody knows that a kid who is 13 can stay home by themselves, right?  Oh wait, maybe that’s not true if you have a kid with a genetic difference.  Oh well, too bad for you.

Families get pushed deeper and deeper into poverty because our childcare policies are not inclusive of those kids who need extra support.  Plus, adults with genetic differences are denied a livable income by our governments and my own provincial government is even so petty to take away people’s funding for bus passes.  But surely this isn’t ‘pervasive discrimination’ is it?

But Professor Caulfield tells us otherwise:

“There is little evidence to support the idea that genetic discrimination is a big problem. If it does happen, it certainly doesn’t happen on a scale that would classify it as a pressing policy dilemma,” (says) Prof. Caulfield. 

Maybe it isn’t a ‘big problem’ or a ‘pressing policy dilemma’ because people experiencing genetic discrimination are too preoccupied to speak up because they are trying to survive in the harsh landscape left in the aftermath of Canadian health care, education and social services policies. Maybe the voices of people who have genetic differences are lost in the sea of experts, who can grab a microphone more readily than someone with an intellectual disability or a speech impairment.

I’m just a mom with a BA in English, so let’s conclude with the words of Atul Gawande, who is a Rhodes Scholar and has his M.D. from Harvard Medical School:

The mistake, then, is to believe that the educational credentials you get today give you any special authority on truth.

Is there such thing as genetic discrimination?  May I respectfully suggest that instead of making broad-sweeping statements that genetic discrimination is not a big problem, you go to the source of truth:  the people themselves.   Because policy analysis is meaningless without combining it with the lived experience of real people.

inclusion or connectedness

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a typical photo of my not-so-typical teenager

Aaron is heading to high school in September.  This transition has caused me a great amount of personal grief – some of which is because of my anxiety around the switch of schools, but mostly because he is moving from a model of inclusion to a model of special ed classes.  We have fought hard to have him included in his community school setting for the past 11 years.   This has been exhausting work, but don’t think I haven’t noticed the erosion of inclusion over the years, starting in grade 3, when he spent most of his time in the principal’s office (this was an exceptionally bad year which culminated in a change of schools), to more and more time spent in resource rooms, with other kids with ‘funding,’ with Educational Assistants, and gravitating to hanging out with considerably younger kids at recess time. His peers pretty much left him behind in the dust, and while I can (and have) railed about this in the past, this is his – and my – reality.  Despite my constant pleas to provide adapted curriculum, delivered in the regular classroom, teachers struggled with figuring out ways to include Aaron as he got older and his gap with the grade’s curriculum widened.

How I wish that all teachers were educated to be special ed teachers so they had the toolkit to teach all kinds of kids – disability or not.  How I wish their classroom sizes were smaller and they had more prep time to adapt lesson plans for kids needing extra support.  This is not the case in British Columbia (nor Alberta, in my experience).  It is what it is.

Today I visited the special ed program in his new high school.  I arrived right after lunch, and it happened to be the students’ mindfulness time, called MindUP.  This involved a few minutes of listening to some beautiful classical music, followed by a guided meditation led by one of the Educational Assistants.  I stood with my eyes closed at the back of the class, basking in the peace.  A small epiphany floated by in my clear head.

What if my past discomfort with having Aaron in a special education class was due to my own discomfort with kids of differing abilities?   What if I had been dismissive of other kids with disabilities, as so many other parents of typically-developing kids are of Aaron himself?  What if I thought he should be in a ‘regular’ classroom to force him to act as ‘non-disabled’ as possible?  This awareness hit me like a sack of bricks, my eyes stung with tears and I hung my head in shame.

My past year working at a children’s hospital that cares for and serves children with disabilities has been a gift to me.  There, I have met many awesome families who have super children with different kinds of disabilities.  It has been an honour to be welcomed into their lives.  In getting to know kids who have CP, Autism, rare syndromes, and brain injuries, I have confronted my own values and feelings about kids with things going on other than Down syndrome.  This has been both humbling and hard.

I’ve realized that one of my trepidations about having Aaron in a special education class has been related to my own fear of the other children.  This ignorance comes from exactly the same place as so many families in Aaron’s schools over the years who have shunned him and our family.  (In our experience, the more educated and socio-economically well off the family, the deeper the shunning has been).  But I, too, have fell into this trap of stereotypical thinking.  Shame on me.

Today, after the meditation in the class, I opened my eyes and saw a group of diverse young people, all making their way in the world.  Some communicated with methods other than speaking, others used mobility devices to help them get around, and other kids had figured out ways to deal with our overstimulated sensory world through rocking or talking to themselves.  But of course they are all kids too, just like Aaron (who can be challenging to understand and who likes to hum and talk to himself in third person).

I am thankful for my workplace that has blessed me with the ability to reflect on my own values.  Last week, I met with a very wise mom, who shared with me – what if high school is really not about curriculum, but it is about Aaron feeling confident?  What if it isn’t a matter inclusion or segregation; it is a matter of connectedness?

The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know.  Bring on high school, in whatever form it is offered.  It has taken me a long time, but I am ready to put my own blustering ego aside to support my boy to finally find somewhere he truly belongs.