No excuses for denying education to children with Down syndrome

Like many parents who have children with disabilities, I worried this would happen — that children with Down syndrome might get pushed out of the education system under the guise of thinly veiled excuses.

I wrote about it in a blog post: “it is my expressed wish that not one student with a disability will experience barriers to receiving an inclusive and full educational experience this year.” Still, my wish didn’t make a difference, because it happened anyway.

The parents of a five-year old boy with Down syndrome in Toronto are told if their son cannot keep his mask on, he can’t come to school. The parents believe in the importance of mask-wearing and desperately seek advice from other parents. An exemption note is received from a doctor; all the while their son is missing out on school.

The first day jitters, making friends, learning new routines: these things aren’t just important to “typical” kids. The school has reservations about the boy not being toilet trained, and suggests the parents wait three weeks until “the right supports” are in place. They knew he was coming since June. In the meantime, the principal informs them, their son should participate in virtual learning, which the parents made clear does not work for their family or meet the educational needs of their son.

Do you think this would happen to a family of a typically developing child? He still hasn’t started school yet.

Another kindergarten student in Halton, a young girl with Down syndrome, goes to school and is unable to open her lunch containers. I remember when my 7-year-old daughter Elyse had the same issue, despite my shopping around for easy-open containers.

We practiced opening containers together; I can see her tiny fingers wrapped around the lid, tugging with all her might. I wanted her to be able to eat at school — could there be a more basic expectation? Kids with Down syndrome, who often have difficulty with fine motor control, struggle with this skill of opening lids, but so do many kids. Thank goodness for the educators who look out for these little ones. It goes without saying that children need nourishment to learn.

The little girl in Halton comes home from school at the end of the day. I think of the mom glimpsing the lunch bag, her heart landing with a thud in her gut at seeing it still full of food. Of knowing there was not one caring adult to be found. The school’s response was that “they weren’t allowed to touch the food or open any containers.” And so her daughter with Down syndrome ate absolutely nothing at school that day.

I feel the disgrace and the hot shame of the young not being protected. I see my own little girl in her place, and I am angry, but that isn’t the answer. A global pandemic is not an excuse. Do not give me one excuse that gets in the way of a child with Down syndrome’s education, of their human rights. Instead, please give me dignity, common sense, inclusion, kindness and love.

Adelle Purdham is a memoir writer who lives in Georgetown, Ont. Visit her blog at adellepurdham.ca

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