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Posts by Maia Idzikowski

​People First of Canada: Advocacy Driving Change in the Community

- by Maia Idzikowski

People First is a national resource centre for self-advocates. It’s the country’s go-to place for anyone with questions or issues regarding advocacy. People First is unique because its board consists of people labelled with intellectual disabilities, showcasing that people are capable beyond society’s expectations.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Shelley Fletcher, the Executive Director of the organization, who shared some of her experiences and insight.

Shelley is passionate about her work with People First. She is determined to resolve many of the issues that self-advocates face. However, she did not always know that working with individuals with disabilities would be the best career path for her. Shelley started volunteering with Special Olympics when she was 18 years old. A few years later, after receiving a college diploma in Business Administration, she started working for Investors Group. In fact, she was more excited about going to volunteering than going to work. Thus, Shelley decided to begin working with people with intellectual disabilities, and everything fell into place.

A typical day in Shelley’s work life consists of “no less than 100 emails a day”, and involvement in numerous committees and public speaking events. Shelley currently sits on a committee with Elections Canada, whose work focusses on making voting more accessible for individuals with disabilities. Shelley is also authoring a presentation for the upcoming Canadian Centre on Disability Studies conference. Part of Shelley’s job is to organize the logistics and writing of presentations and speeches, and then work with the members of People First and prepare them to deliver and facilitate these presentations and speeches.

Shelley works closely with politicians both provincially and federally. One MP whom she works with even took forward and passed a Private Member’s Bill on employment and disability. Shelley also facilitated the volunteer placement of a self-advocate in the office of this MP, which led to employment at the House of Commons. Working closely with People First, this self-advocate was able to have a direct impact on the hiring criteria at the House, and obtained the position despite not speaking French.

When asked about her experiences working with individuals with intellectual disabilities, Shelley had numerous stories to share. Twenty-five years ago, Shelley began working with one gentleman named Chris. For the first five years, Shelley worked with Chris at a day program, and then for five more when Shelley became employed at the agency that supported him residentially. During her maternity leave, Shelley resigned from that specific job and went on to another place of employment. When she went to find Chris and see how he was doing, information was hard to come by due to privacy and confidentiality laws. Twelve years later, Shelley discovered that Chris had become ill and was living in a nursing home. Twelve years later, upon visiting him at the nursing home, the first thing Chris said to her was “Shelley Dawn Fletcher, where have you been?” Since then, Shelley visits Chris weekly at the nursing home, and recently she has become Chris’ co-substitute decision maker and he is no longer under the order of the Public Trustee.

Over the past 30 years or so, Canada has seen drastic changes to the rights of people with intellectual disabilities. I asked Shelley what she thinks still needs to be done to ensure that self-advocates have equal rights. In her opinion, the largest challenge facing self-advocates at this time is the ongoing battle of having the basic right to choose where they want to live and with whom. There is legislation in place establishing this Right, however it is not yet widely enforced. People First, consequently, is challenging governments with the question ‘Why not?’. Why is this legislation not enforced? Why are the rights of these individuals not upheld?

People First of Canada is part of a National Task Force along with their colleagues from the Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL) which focuses on the right to live in the community. Together, they are spearheading a research project aiming to understand why individuals with really great needs are granted the opportunity to live in the community, while others do not get the chance.

Following this thought, I inquired about the ultimate goal in regards to inclusion. The bottom line is that when individuals can live on their own and have full control of their lives, we will be heading in the right direction of an inclusive society. Ultimately, the goal is that advocacy organizations will not have a need to exist. The non-profit organization LIFE, which has a program called In the Company of Friends, is an excellent example of how people should be living. It is a person-centred model where the person receiving services and supports is truly in total control of their lives.

I asked Shelley, furthermore, about the types of situations that require individuals with intellectual disabilities to advocate for themselves. People First of Canada focusses on the ‘bigger picture’ in Canada. An example of this would be legal cases that are of national scope. People First of Canada worked on the ‘Eve’ case 27 years ago and due to their contribution to that case, people with intellectual disabilities are no longer allowed to be sterilized in Canada. Another example of this is the Tracy Latimer case. People First intervened at the Supreme Court level and advocated to remind society (and the court) that Tracy was the victim in this case, not her father. (Whom was found guilty of murdering his daughter.)

The true experts on intellectual disabilities, without a doubt, are the people who live with the label. People First of Canada is piloting a five-year national education project targeted to students in Grades 7 and 8 across Canada. The Language Project is delivered by members of People First, and teaches youth about the negative connotations associated with the “R” Word. In this manner, young people across Canada will learn about stigma and societal misunderstandings from the individuals affected by these issues.

Shelley, additionally, revealed some of the challenges that arise out of her professional work. Achieving inclusiveness has been a slow process with gradual progress being made. A lack of political will to spearhead change, as well as societal thinking and stereotypes hold back individuals with disabilities. With the upcoming election, moreover, the current challenge is to engage the candidates into stimulating discussion over disability issues.

On a final note, I asked Shelley if there is anything she thinks everyone should know. It really comes down to the fact that everyone has the right to live in the community, and this right is not being met and fulfilled. In some provinces, there are zoning laws stating that people with disabilities cannot live within 200 meters of each other if they are receiving services. Residential licensing laws are prohibiting self-advocates from owning a key to their own group homes. In another case, a provincial government asked a London Professor to move to their province to teach, but sent the family back when they had a baby with Down Syndrome. A ‘burden on our medical system’ is what they were told. This is simply outrageous!

What this boils down to is our laws and legislation. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that every individual has the right to inclusive employment (Article 27) and education (Article 24), along with the right to live in the community (Article 19), the right to legal capacity (Article 12), and the right to raise awareness and advocate for oneself (Article 8). Working with members, People First of Canada is twofold: it teaches its members about these rights (and the responsibilities that come with them) and how to gain access to inclusion within society. It also works with communities across the country teaching them about people’s rights. Advocacy is a powerful tool that drives change. Without it, rights would not be obtained and secured, and the most vulnerable in our society would be overlooked.


Inclusion Alberta's Pocket Guide to Advocacy: A Summary

- by Maia Idzikowski

After coming across Inclusion Alberta’s engaging and informative Pocket Guide to Advocacy, I decided to summarize a few of the main points. All quotes below are taken directly from the Pocket Guide to Advocacy, which can be found here.

The Pocket Guide to Advocacy is divided into three main sections: Introduction, First Steps and Taking Action, which are indicated below in bold.


In order for a child to be fully included in the community, advocacy is inevitable. Every parent is required to advocate for what is in the best interest of their child, regardless of the child having a disability or not. Advocacy pushes barriers and in working together, parents can collectively address and remedy the challenges that are encountered on a daily basis. Overall, this will immensely benefit the community.

Unfortunately, challenges will arise in a parent’s journey in regards to advocacy. Parents will encounter individuals who do not fully value individuals with intellectual disabilities, and this will make inclusion a challenge. While advocacy may be viewed negatively, and will not be appreciated by all, it is important to keep in mind that advocacy is a “necessary and beneficial social good” (page 3).

In order to help parents along their advocacy journey, it is empowering to be a member of a family advocacy network or organization. For instance, the various Community Living Branches across Canada connect families with conferences, workshops, and family networks in order for parents to become successful and effective advocates in their community. Advocacy is extremely important; it will ensure that your child has the supports and services he/she requires. Moreover, it is extremely natural for you, as a parent to experience self-doubt and uncertainty. While these doubts can help you improve your advocacy skills, it is “important that these natural self-doubts do not overwhelm or paralyze you” (page 6).

First Steps


When beginning your advocacy journey, it is critical that you establish a vision for your child, and clarifying “your vision for your son or daughter’s inclusive future is critical to any successful advocacy" (page 7). Your vision is something that you will refine as your child gets older, and it is also helpful to share your vision with others. Being able to clearly articulate and understand your vision is critical because there will be times when you will be required to explain and defend your vision in the presence of individuals who do not necessarily agree with it. Ultimately, “your vision is the benchmark you will use to determine which compromises you might make and which you will not” (page 9).

In aiming to achieve an inclusive life for a child, a parent will often pursue a normative pathway. A normative pathway is defined as the “path most people in our society typically follow through life” (page 9). Young people, for instance, go to school, get part time jobs, and go to college or university. As a parent, you can aim to have your son/daughter included in some of these pathways. Ultimately, advocacy is about creating the possibilities and opportunities for your child to have a meaningful and fulfilling life.


When in an advocacy situation, keep in mind that other parties may have allegiances to other interests including agency policies, budgets, and personal beliefs and values. Consequently, you should never compromise in ways you are not prepared for. Others may use the statements “we are all here for the same reason” or “we all have the same interests in doing what is best” (page 11) to try to misrepresent the true interests of various stakeholders and parties involved.


Being confident in your ability to advocate for your child is the key to successful advocacy. It is also important to understand that being emotional is ok. After all, you are advocating on behalf of someone for whom you care deeply. In order to prepare yourself for advocacy, examine your vulnerabilities and weaknesses. “For example, if you know you are likely to lose your cool or breakdown when someone devalues the presence of your son or daughter, then you can think about how to prepare yourself. At that point you may want to take a break, have your advocate or ally respond or having prepared yourself for this moment, take a deep breath and take your time responding” (page 14).

Confidence will help you resist the urge to compromise. Being cooperative is ideal, but “do not mistake cooperation and pleasantness as more valued than taking a stand on what is right and true…You do not have to be angry or aggressive, but being assertive is valid when it is your son or daughter who is relying on you to protect their well-being and future” (Pages 15-16).

Taking Action

Preparation- the meeting

Consider the following:

  • Who will be at the meeting (Who you bring to support you at the meeting will depend on the type of meeting and the other parties in attendance);
  • Who has the authority to make the necessary decisions (ideally, this is who you want at the meeting);
  • Who you need or want attending the meeting;
  • Who will be taking notes;
  • Who will chair or facilitate the meeting;
  • Who you will bring as a representative (You are always entitled to bring an advocate, just let the other party know you will be accompanied at the meeting). If the other party refuses to allow you to bring an advocate or representative, then postpone the meeting until this is resolved. Do not attend meetings where the terms of the meeting have been planned unilaterally;
  • How long will the meeting be scheduled for;
  • How much time you will have to present your request and remember to ensure the amount of time works for you;
  • If you have access to the same information as everyone else at the meeting, what the agenda is and that it addresses your concerns. (page 17)


It is helpful to keep a binder containing all documents and correspondence in regards to your advocacy journey. Should you ever have to go through a formal appeal process, this binder will come in handy. In some cases, you may also want to keep a log. Here, you can record the date and every contact made in the advocacy matter i.e. phone calls, emails, and meetings.


Before a meeting, establish goals and outcomes that you would like to achieve. This way, you will be able to successfully negotiate and compromise. Many advocates find it helpful to bring a photo of the individual they are advocating for. This way, everyone is reminded that there is a real person whose life will be affected by the decisions made at that meeting.


Gathering information from other families can help you decide what steps to take and how you want to go about a particular advocacy matter. By being connected to a family network or advocacy organization, you will learn from parents who have experienced exactly what you are going through. Principals, for instance, may tell you that they lack the funding or supports necessary to grant your child an inclusive education. This, however, is incorrect. In this situation, you should get the principal to agree to that statement in writing. This way, they are ultimately agreeing that your child deserves an inclusive education, but the only issue is funding. The law states that children cannot be excluded or denied support because of funding. Almost every one of these situations results in the child being included in the classroom. Advocacy groups and family networks will be able to share many more strategies and tips for ensuring that the needs of your child are met.

On another note, you should always try to be as familiar as possible with “any relevant policies, regulations, ministerial orders or legislation that governs the matter under negotiation” (page 23).


Compromise is inevitable. However, when one party is more vulnerable than the other, compromise must be approached with caution. “The interests of both parties in this instance are not equal and the compromise must first serve the interests of the vulnerable party” (page 23). It should also be noted that compromise should be approached with your vision in mind, and never with the mindset that things could be worse.

One particular compromise to avoid is surrounding segregated programs in educations. “As most systems are organized around offering segregated or group programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities, families will be more readily offered this option. To disguise the reality of these options they will often have nice names attached to them and rarely will they be describes as segregated or congregated (i.e. grouping people with disabilities together)” (page 26). These segregated options may be offered in combination with inclusive education, but this usually progresses to full-time segregation. Research has shown, additionally, that inclusive environments offer more instruction and individual attention to children with developmental disabilities, and is therefore, a better option.

To learn more about inclusive education and the benefits of Universal Design for Learning, check out Community Living Manitoba’s blog post here.

Friends and Advocates

Once again, it is best to try to bring a friend or advocate with you to meetings. These people can provide support, take notes, and remind you of the points you wish to cover. Friends and advocates can also act as a witness to what is being said at the meeting.

Speak to the Right Person

Aim to meet with the person who has the authority to make the decision you require. If this cannot be arranged, then try to identify the next person in the chain of command of authority or the steps you need to take in order to meet with the individual with authority.


Listening carefully is another important aspect of meetings. Listening carefully may "give you insight into the other person’s perspective and provide strategic clue as to how you might frame your points so that you too will be heard” (page 28). If you bring a friend or advocate to the meeting, they will be able to listen to what is being said as well as watch body language. As a result, they may be able to provide you with a fresh perspective on the situation. Also, taking breaks is could be a good idea. During breaks, you can strategize or review points with your advocate.

Formal Advocacy and Appeals

Formal advocacy situations arise when experts or lawyers are involved, and families should not enter into these situations without their own lawyers or experts to support them. If you are involved in cases surrounding formal appeal or review of a decision, an advocacy association can provide you with the help you need.

Family Advocacy

Family advocacy collectively makes a difference. “The possibility of a more promising future rests entirely on the capacity of families to pursue their vision of a meaningful and inclusive life” (page 30).


​Benefits of Inclusive Employment Part 7: Presentation of a Diverse Workforce

- by Maia Idzikowski

Over time, society has evolved to accept individuals no matter their shape, size, race, religion or ethnicity. Canada’s Employment Equity Act (1986) ensures that designated groups (Women, Visible Minorities, Aboriginal People, and Persons with a Disability) are protected against systemic barriers and given equal opportunity within the workforce, and the general public is outraged when they discover that women are being paid significantly less than men in some cases. Moreover, Section 15 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures that “every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability”.

While individuals with intellectual disabilities are not always at the centre of discussions as are the other groups protected by Canada’s Employment Equity Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they deserve the same opportunities as everyone else. But, like the other groups protected by the Act and Charter, they have to overcome greater barriers to become employed.

Most companies want to present a diverse workforce. Now that society is more accepting of diversity, so are employers. Most of us have personal experiences with diversity; either through personal or family experiences or through experiences of our friends, co-workers or community members. Because diversity is part of our lives, we want to see this diversity reflected in places of employment and business. Companies know that it is “good business” to reflect the image of society through employment and other policies. The natural next step in reflecting and celebrating diversity is to hire inclusively. Hiring inclusively sets companies ahead of their competitors; seen as a progressive brand with integrity, these companies will appeal to a larger base of consumers.

Presenting a diverse workforce looks good from all angles. An employee will be proud of the organization they work for, consumers will be proud to say that they support this company/business, and as a result, employers will see the benefits.

This thought concludes Community Living Manitoba’s 7 part series on Inclusive Employment. If you would like to learn more about Ready, Willing and Able, a national initiative partnered with Community Living Manitoba to promote and facilitate inclusive employment, contact:

Brian Rochat at (204) 781-0582

or email:


​Benefits of Inclusive Employment Part 6: Enhanced Employer Public Image

- by Maia Idzikowski

The world contains an estimated 1.3 billion people with disabilities. Collectively, this is equivalent to the population of China. Over 200 million of these people have intellectual disabilities. The disabled population is a vast market of consumers and potential employees. It has even been stated that “the disability opportunity is comparable with that of the ‘green’ marketing opportunity of recent decades”.

Consumers are drawn to brands with integrity. I try to buy fair trade chocolate, and sweatshop free clothing, and tend to support companies and businesses that celebrate diversity by hiring inclusively. Generally, “People of all ages and backgrounds now prefer brands that are inclusive, socially aware and that act in-line with their values as consumers and employees”.

Companies that promote inclusion by hiring individuals with intellectual disabilities or on the Autism Spectrum are not only seen as fair and just by consumers, but by their employees as well. Employees who are proud of the company they work for are more willing to collaborate, which helps create a cohesive, team oriented workforce. Employees who see their employer in a positive light are less likely to quit their jobs, and more likely to strive for further opportunities within that business or company.

Disney, for instance, is well-known for making their theme parks accessible to all, regardless of ability or disability. Disney, as a result, has a very positive brand image. The Return on Disability Report states that “the company that can solve barriers facing extreme users will improve usability for the average user”, and this is precisely what Disney has done. In making the theme parks accessible for individuals with disabilities, it becomes more accessible for everyone else. The Report also indicates that “the most impressive aspect of how Disney deals with disability is the way in which they talk about it. It is not a compliance issue, but part of the customer experience”.

It all boils down to the fact that hiring inclusively and catering to the 1.3 billion people with disabilities is good for business. By widening an organization’s marketing and hiring bases, consumers and employees will see that organization in a positive light. Overall, an enhanced employer and public image is an obtainable goal for all companies and businesses, and hiring inclusively is the best way to get started.

Ready, Willing, and Able (RWA) is a national initiative partnered with Community Living Manitoba to promote inclusive employment. If you would like to learn more about RWA or inclusive employment, contact:

Brian Rochat at (204) 781-0582

or email:

*All statistics and quotes taken from the 2014 Annual Report on Disability: The Global Economics of Disability.


​Benefits of Inclusive Employment Part 5: Pride in the Job/Organizational Loyalty

- by Maia Idzikowski

When people can see the impact their work is making, it is very rewarding and amplifying to one's sense of self. This applies to everyone in society, not just individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Finding a job that is meaningful and impactful is proven to be difficult, especially when entering the workforce for the first time. For individuals with intellectual disabilities, finding "real work for real pay" is challenging, but the benefits of such a work placement are endless.

When these individuals see tangible and favourable outcomes from their work (completing tasks, helping customers, etc...), they are empowered. These individuals are proud of their accomplishments, and will continue to be a source of positivity and empowerment for others in their world.

When individuals with intellectual disabilities are proud of their work, they will also feel loyal to the organization they are working for. They will want to continue working, and will tell their friends and family all about their positive and rewarding experiences.

Other employees will also see the employer in a positive light. They will see the company as fair, and as having integrity. Other employees, in turn, will experience organizational loyalty. The businesses that take the needs of their employees into consideration are the ones with the greatest organizational loyalty. Companies where employees feel proud and empowered by their work are the most successful, because they present a unified, cohesive workforce.

Ultimately, hiring an individual with an intellectual disability will create a team-oriented atmosphere. As a result, all team members will feel empowered, and excited to be at work.

According to the Q12 Meta-Analysis Report, employees experience organizational loyalty if they can answer ‘yes’ to the following questions:

Q00: (Overall Satisfaction) On a five-point scale, where “5” is extremely satisfied and “1” is extremely dissatisfied, how satisfied are you with (your company) as a place to work?

Q01: I know what is expected of me at work.

Q02: I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.

Q03: At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

Q04: In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.

Q05: My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.

Q06: There is someone at work who encourages my development.

Q07: At work, my opinions seem to count.

Q08: The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.

Q09: My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.

Q10: I have a best friend at work.

Q11: In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.

Q12: This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

If employees answer ‘no’ in response to the majority of these questions, areas for improvement are identified. The Q12 questions can also illustrate if a company is a good candidate for inclusive employment. If the employees can answer ‘yes’ to the majority of these questions, then perhaps the company should consider hiring individuals with intellectual disabilities.

For more information about inclusive employment or if you would like to schedule an appointment with Community Living Manitoba’s Labour Market Facilitator for Ready, Willing and Able,
email: Brian Rochat at

or call at (204) 781-0582

Stay tuned for part 6 of the Benefits of Inclusive Employment Series!


​Benefits of Inclusive Employment Part 4: Positive Attitude

- by Maia Idzikowski

I remember when I got my first job. I had just turned 16, and was so excited to finally be entering the workforce. I was slightly nervous, motivated to work hard, and empowered that the company had picked me over other applicants. People with intellectual disabilities feel the same way when they enter into the workforce. They are excited, a little bit nervous, and determined to work hard.

As discussed in previous segments, individuals with intellectual disabilities appreciate an employment opportunity more than anyone else. They have to overcome greater barriers to obtain a position and often develop a very deep sense of gratitude towards the employer.

When employees are grateful, excited and determined to be entering into the workforce, they will maintain a positive attitude while working. Positivity is contagious; other co-workers, managers and customers will also be affected.

The quote “positive minds lead positive lives” (anonymous), is applicable to inclusive employment. Individuals with intellectual disabilities will instill positivity into the minds of those they are working with. They will also make a massive contribution to the morale of the organization or business, creating a friendly, team-oriented, and accepting atmosphere where every employee feels like they belong.

A welcoming workplace where everyone feels safe and included will be attractive to prospective employees, while creating a supportive, cohesive workforce.

In the end, hiring an individual with an intellectual disability is going to make everyone happy. Customers will be thrilled to be served by such friendly employees, and co-workers will find the welcoming workplace to be exciting and refreshing. For all stakeholders, this is a win-win situation!

For more information about inclusive employment or if you would like to schedule an appointment with Community Living Manitoba’s Labour Market Facilitator for Ready, Willing and Able,
email: Brian Rochat at

or call at (204) 781-0582


​The Impact of Technology

- by Maia Idzikowski

A multitude of new apps developed by individuals with intellectual disabilities have proven to be extremely helpful for self-advocates.

Apps range from communication aids to programs that aim to develop life skills.

The LOLA (Laugh Out Loud Aid) is a “program that helps people with special needs develop daily life skills through funny reminders”. Individuals can challenge themselves through these humorous and light-hearted reminders multiple times throughout the day.

Below: LOLA App reminds a user to brush their teeth

The inspiration for this app? Seth Truman, a 13-year-old was feeling frustrated by constant reminders from adults regarding how to behave in public. Thus, in partnering with Tech Kids Unlimited, a non-profit organization specializing in education and technology, Seth developed the LOLA app.

Another helpful program, entitled the “Emergency Chat App” developed by Jeroen De Busser, allows individuals to communicate via phone during a stressful situation. Jeroen is a computer science student who has autism. He understands that during a panic attack, it is possible to go completely non-verbal due to high amounts of stress and anxiety. The Emergency Chat app is text-based, and “displays personalized instructions on how to assist or handle an individual during a meltdown or panic attack, instead of wasting precious time in trying to parse through verbal communication”.

The app saves individuals from the worry that they will not be able to communicate in the event of an emergency. Now, all they have to do is give their phone to the people trying to help, and the app will explain the situation and provide a bare-bones chat interface to communicate over.

While the app is currently being used by over 500 individuals on the Autism Spectrum, several individuals with PTSD or a tracheostomy have also customized the settings to fit their medical condition.

Click here to read more about the LOLA app.

To learn more, about the Emergency Chat app, read this article.


​Universal Design for Learning: An Endless Possibility of Benefits

- by Maia Idzikowski

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a method of achieving inclusion of all students in the classroom, regardless of learning ability. It was inspired by the Universal Design movement in architecture, developed by Ronald L. Mace at North Carolina State University where "the design of products and environments [is] to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”.

The MAUDeL (Manitoba Alliance for Universal Design for Learning) is promoting the Three Block Model to Universal Design. The Three Block Model is the educational framework required to implement UDL in the classroom.

I recently had the chance to talk with Dr. Jennifer Katz, a researcher in inclusive education at the University of Manitoba. She is also the founder of the Manitoba Alliance for Universal Design for Learning.

“Dr. Katz received her PhD in 2008 from the University of British Columbia in inclusive education. She is the author of “Teaching to Diversity: The Three Block Model of Universal Design for Learning” and "Resource Teacher: A Changing Role in the Three-Block Model of UDL". Dr. Katz has been a successful sessional lecturer, educational consultant, classroom teacher, editor, and guidance counselor. She taught in diverse classrooms from K-12 in Winnipeg and Vancouver for 16 years where she developed the Three-Block Model, including special education classrooms, inclusive classrooms, youth centres, and alternative high school programs” (MAUDeL Website).

Jennifer explained how she formed the Alliance with the goal to bring together a group of influential people to create and propel change within Manitoba’s education system. Representing the University of Manitoba, she brought together individuals from all three provincial universities, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, community groups, school divisions, and government representatives. Ultimately, these groups work together, with the current goal of becoming a non-profit organization.

What was Jennifer’s motivation for spearheading such a substantial and time-consuming project? She revealed that prior to the formation of the Manitoba Alliance for Universal Design for Learning, many schools would call her and ask for help regarding classroom inclusion. There was no organized plan to train teachers in UDL and review the curriculum. Consequently, schools would use limited resources to include individuals with disabilities as best they can. Jennifer, therefore, saw the need for a group to come together, and using everyone’s expertise, work within the system to create improvement and change.

The Alliance is sub-divided into committees. The Research and Development committee, for instance, is developing UDL as the methodology and framework for classroom education.

When discussing the goals of the Alliance, the long term vision is to promote and fully incorporate UDL into every classroom as a means to creating socially and academically inclusive schools. In regards to a short term goal, the board members are currently working towards becoming a non-profit organization. Other objectives include educating the public and advocating for inclusive education. It is critical to talk to parents of children with intellectual disabilities. Oftentimes, they fight UDL because they believe that their child needs an educational assistant as well as special programs. Historically, this is how education has been approached. The research, on the other hand, says otherwise. When a child spends 80% of their day with adults rather than interacting with their peers, that child will experience lower academic achievement, poor social skills, and a less successful transition to the community. In segregated classrooms, these children will not learn how to interact and live in the general population, increasing social anxiety.

A common assumption made by many educators is that children with intellectual disabilities need to learn job and life skills. While attending special programming to learn these so-called ‘crucial’ skills, the child is missing out on instruction in the classroom, thus leaving the child alienated from the rest of the class. All children will learn job and life skills through UDL as a result of the focus on social and emotional awareness and learning. Logically, a child cannot get a job if they cannot interact with co-workers and customers, and what better place is there to learn social skills than in the classroom? Parents and educators alike need to understand that global research indicates that in an inclusive classroom and with peer interaction, children with intellectual disabilities do far better not only in academics, but social and emotional awareness and life skills as well.

Another aspect of UDL that differs from the status quo is the utilization of an educational assistant (EA) in the classroom. UDL aims to minimize the time the EA spends with the disabled child at a 1:1 ratio, while using the EA to serve all members of the classroom.

Jennifer revealed that the Three Block Model will shift the balance of education in Manitoba. The Three Block Model does not introduce new content to the education system; it simply shifts the focus from rote academic performance and memorization to critical thinking, problem solving, 21st century skills and competencies, and social and emotional learning. In classrooms, students do not learn how to interpret emotions and establish morals and values. UDL and the Three Block Model pull us back into recognizing that while academic and intellectual development is important, students need to be immersed in an instructional climate where self-worth and belonging, and valuing of diverse others, for instance, are encouraged. Under the status quo, it is possible to instill these values in students in spite of systemic shortcomings. However, the Three Block Model utilizes the system to support and encourage students to learn these fundamental values.

For students who are intellectually disabled, this is a huge shift. Block 1, for instance, focuses on the goal of self-worth and belonging. If the individual is at the back of the classroom with an EA, this goal cannot be fulfilled. At best, ‘helper’ relationships can be established between the individual and his/her classmates. Classmates will never see that individual as a peer. To remedy this, the Three Block Model pays attention to how we integrate students as part of the classroom and activities. In typical classrooms, individuals with intellectual disabilities are often underestimated, and not given the opportunity to rise to meet his/her potential. When we shift towards including these individuals into the classroom in universally designed ways, they become problem-solving, critical thinkers, and play a socially valued role in the classroom. This will set them up for success and independence in further life.

UDL and the Three Block Model benefit all, and impact everyone. Through the Three Block Model’s holistic approach, students will see gains in self, concept, and engagement, in addition to academic achievement. While UDL may be more important with students with intellectual disabilities, it still serves all students. Many students that currently are successful are not engaged and do not enjoy school. UDL will engage more students, and provide them with an experience different from the one they are currently receiving. Teachers are also supported by UDL. Shockingly, 47% of teachers leave their profession before retirement age. The Three Block Model provides the teacher with the resources to accommodate and support all students, resulting in an increase in positive behavioural and learning outcomes. This will decrease the teacher’s stress levels, and provide a more rewarding work environment.

When discussing the challenges associated with incorporating UDL into classrooms using the Three Block Model, Jennifer discovered that coming from a system standpoint, we have to rethink how we teach, as well as eliminate stereotypes. It is really about shifting the values and beliefs towards inclusion, and eliminating the entrenched beliefs surrounding the limitations we believe that individuals with different learning abilities possess.

Another upside to incorporating the Three Block Model is that it does not add any additional expense to the education system. While it would cost a substantial amount to provide teachers with training, the long term benefits are substantial, even economically. A reduction in teacher leaves and illness, student behaviour and failure, and the need for segregated programs with low teacher-student ratios reduces costs. In a sense, we merely have to shift the budget around. For instance, there is a significant portion of the budget going towards bussing in special education programs, and this is something that would be eliminated should UDL be incorporated into classrooms.

I asked Jennifer, additionally, about her current projects regarding the Manitoba Alliance. Communication and advocacy are a major focus right now. The Alliance is trying to raise awareness through their blog, website, newsletter, and conferences about the Three Block Model as a method for achieving inclusion. THIS Conference (Transforming Hearts, Instruction, and Soul) is also coming up from August 24th-28th at the Caboto Centre. THIS Conference features a variety of sessions geared towards parents, educators and anyone interested in UDL and inclusive education. Deb Dykstra, a Community Living Manitoba board member, is delivering two sessions at this conference: Parent Perspectives on UDL and Including Students with Developmental Disabilities. This is an event you will definitely want to check out!

In closing, Universal Design for Learning is a celebration of diversity. The Three Block Model helps design a classroom that clearly embraces the leading notion that all students have something to offer.


​Benefits of Inclusive Employment Part 3: Reduced Turnover

- by Maia Idzikowski

Hiring inclusively has a multitude of benefits. Employers who hire individuals with intellectual disabilities report a reduced employee turnover.

This makes sense. In part 1 of this series, we established that individuals with intellectual disabilities or ASD are appreciative of employment opportunities. They are hard workers, who pay close attention to detail and are excited to be entering into the workforce. As a result, these individuals are less likely to quit their job than the ‘average’ employee.

For the employer, what this really boils down to is that hiring individuals with intellectual disabilities or ASD is good for business. These employees are among the most dependable. They are ready to make a long-term commitment to their workplace, and will strive to do the best job possible. An organization or company that can keep employees for many years is also extremely attractive to potential employees. They will see the company as fair and reliable, and will be more likely to make a long-term commitment themselves.

Ultimately, hiring individuals with intellectual disabilities or ASD reduces employee turnover, establishing the company as consistent and dependable.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of the Ready, Willing, and Able Series on Inclusive Employment.


Nike Releases Disability-Friendly Shoes

- by Maia Idzikowski

Nike, one of the leading brands in athletic wear, has expanded their product line to include people with disabilities. The new LeBron Soldier 8 FLYEASE shoes have people with disabilities in mind. The shoes are described as an “easy-entry footwear system”, and “rather than rely on laces, the new approach uses a wrap-around zipper system to secure the shoe. What’s more, a larger opening at the back makes it easier to slide the foot in and out”.

Nike began designing the shoes after they received a letter written by Matthew Walzer, a 16 year old with Cerebral Palsy. Matthew’s dream is to go to college, and not have to worry about tying his shoes, something that many people with disabilities struggle with every day. Now he gets his wish!

Tobie Hatfield, the designer of LeBron Soldier 8 FLYEASE stated:

“While varying levels of mobility make it difficult to provide a universal solution, we feel this is a significant development for anyone who has ever struggled with independently securing their foot within Nike shoes.”

These shoes are also just the beginning! Nike is working to develop more shoes in the FLYEASE line.

While on the topic of shopping, Shop and Share is an online shopping platform where a portion of every purchase is donated to a non-profit of your choice. While Nike is not a participating retailer, you can make a purchase from stores such as The Bay, Sears, Gap, iTunes, and Groupon. Shop and Share is an excellent way to lend Community Living Manitoba a helping hand, at no extra cost to you! The website is Canadian- based and really simple to use. All you have to do is set-up an account, and make your purchases through the Shop and Share site. Click here to check it out!

Click here to check out Disability Scoop’s article featuring the new LeBron Soldier 8 FLYEASE


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