By: Adela Dunkley
The word disability is defined in the dictionary as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions”. There are a variety of different disabilities that exist in the world, but nowhere in the definition of a disability does it state that having a disability makes you completely different. People with disabilities struggle on a daily basis to feel like a part of our community as they face segregation simply due to the way they look or act. As a society, we judge people with disabilities in a way that makes their lives way harder than it needs to be. It’s our responsibility to accept them and treat them the way they should be treated, and that’s where we need to make a change. In this article, the benefits of introducing reverse integration disability programs will be discussed through looking at an existing program in Montreal and how it impacted a student who was a part of it to prove that integration at a young age or even at any age changes us all for the better.
In 1973, Mackay Centre School in Montreal, Quebec introduced a program known as the reverse integration program where students from Pre-K to Grade 5 can apply to attend Mackay for a year. Mackay is a school for children with disabilities and this program allows students from other schools to take a year off learning at their local school and spend a year at Mackay learning alongside children with disabilities. Students who attend as part of the program follow their own grade level curriculum, while also learning how to work with people with disabilities and experiencing what it’s like to live in a world with them. They learn the basics of sign language, are taught in an ordinarily fun way, and most of all they learn life skills such as open-mindedness, inclusivity, and acceptance. Students also learn in an environment that academically challenges them by having to teach others. In fact, many students come out of the program performing better academically than before. However, the most important thing students come out of the program with are friendships where people who tend to be viewed as disabled are now seen as regular people and their genuine friends. Having a reverse integration program has changed the lives of many students, and there’s one in particular who’s living life in a way she never would’ve without it.
Being a part of an experience like this is an opportunity that no one takes for granted, and for Sitara Dunkley, her experience at Mackay was one that changed her as a person and that she would do 100 times again. Sitara attended Mackay from September 2018 to June of 2019 during her grade 4 year after hearing about it from an article in her local newspaper and from other kids who had done it at her school. After noticing people judging a disabled girl, she realized that she wasn’t happy with people’s reactions to her. She thought to herself, “If I attend, that makes one less person that stares at them and from there I can spread the word and change people’s perspectives”. She said, “You can’t just stand by and watch people stare, you have to go and experience it and do something about it”. Her gut was telling her to do it and make a difference, so she applied and got accepted to be a part of the program. She recalls walking into the school and being amazed with the way it was built. The walls were painted bright colours so most blind kids could see them, posters with important sign language signs were posted around the school so everyone would know how to communicate with the deaf, and the whole building was accessible. She was in a class of 11 people with 8 children with disabilities, and while they were shy at first due to their common mistreatment, she now has friends that will last a lifetime.
While attending Mackay, she was able to experience things she never would’ve been able to do elsewhere that changed her perspective on her own life. She got to be in a wheelchair for a day, be blind for a day, only speak sign language as if they were deaf for a day, and even wear sensors that made them lose their sense of touch to experience what children with disabilities face on a day-to-day basis. These experiences are her favourite memories because she now has a newfound respect for all these kids and is so much more grateful for everything she has. These memories bring her back to the moment and makes her so much more aware of the senses she has that people don’t have, and that’s changed the way she views her life. Mackay has taught her to “look past the colour, the skin, how they look, and just see them for who they are”.
People expect people with disabilities to be…mean [because of their] looks, but when you get to know them, you see that they’re super nice because they do everything in their power to treat people the opposite of how they’re treated.Sitara Dunkley
Sitara continues and says, “I’ve learned to not judge a book by its cover. I’m a lot less stereotypical now than before I went to Mackay as now, when I see a disabled person, I don’t look away, I look at them and smile. Going to Mackay changed everything. At the beginning, you’re kind of freaked out because you’re not used to it, but even the nicest person in the whole world who doesn’t judge anybody would need to get used to it. Now, I show up to school and see things in a completely different way. I notice everybody smile and it makes me really happy now. I have this feeling where you feel for everybody and I’m so grateful for everything I have and that I was able to be a part of the program”.
Sitara went through a life changing experience at the age of 10 years old and can now call herself an ally and someone who is accepting of everyone. She now has the skills to communicate with people with all sorts of disabilities, and that helps further her role as an ally. The reverse integration program presented at Mackay has taught children how to be accepting and see everyone as equal, and if we were all taught that, people with disabilities would no longer be segregated. Integrating children with children with disabilities is what I believe could be a step in the right direction. The program changes perspectives of students and families and even improves children’s academic capabilities. The lessons learned are valuable life lessons that apply to many scenarios and issues in the world today. If more schools were to adapt a reverse integration program, the way we view people as individuals would all be the same and would make the world a place of inclusivity and acceptance. “Everybody deserves to experience the same happiness, moments, memories, and millions of smiles, and everyone should be presented with that opportunity to experience those things in a different light.”