The Hill Academy Parasport Program:
An Innovative School Leads the Way on Accessibility and Inclusion

Since 2006, the Hill Academy in Vaughan, Ontario has been training the next generation of champion student-athletes. Their unique curriculum combines excellence in academics and personal development with intensive athletic training in hockey, basketball and lacrosse, for both boys and girls, in grades seven to twelve. Over the years, many outstanding athletes have come from the Hill Academy: currently there are 42 student alumni on professional national teams, and three students from the school were recently acquired in the 2014 NHL entry draft.
 
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Seeing A Need

The founder of the school, Peter Merrill, had a bold idea. He decided he would adapt the programming at the Hill Academy to accommodate student athletes both with and without disabilities. Working with Stuart McReynolds, formerly the Senior Coordinator of Education Programs at the Canadian Paralympic Committee, the two created the world's first full-time high school parasport program. Beginning in September 2016, the Hill Academy will open its doors to para-athletes in the fields of wheelchair basketball and sledge hockey.

Athletes with disabilities will be fully integrated into the life of the school, and engage in academic studies and athletic training side-by-side with their able-bodied peers.

Extracurricular training sessions and regular 'Mentor Lunches' will allow all students attending the Hill Academy to try out the different parasports, and participating in parasport at the recreational level will be available to athletes both with and without disabilities.
 

Assessing Accessibility

The Hill Academy will work with the Rick Hansen Foundation and other partners to make the entire campus and sports facilities as accessible as possible. The Academy is committed to stand as a best practice school in terms of integration and inclusion. The school is already well on its way in regards to providing barrier-free facilities: the main academic building and all the sports facilities and rinks are fully accessible to wheelchair users. Lowered curbs, automatic doors, fully accessible washrooms and an elevator to the second floor classrooms are already in place, although some improvements will need to be made to some of the smaller, stand-alone buildings in terms of creating ramps and threshold access.

Stuart McReynolds (now the Director of the Parasport Program at Hill Academy) advises schools that may need financial help to implement accessibility improvements to look to potential community partners for support, and to seek advice and guidance from similar organizations that have been successful in raising funds and making changes.
 

Practicing Inclusion

Interestingly, Stuart believes the real barriers to inclusion for people with disabilities are not physical, but psychological. “People are apprehensive of what they're not familiar with,” he says, “it is lack of knowledge, and by extension, of understanding, that keeps barriers in place.” It is important, therefore, for teachers to receive full training and support when it comes to preparing to fully meet the needs of students with disabilities.

At the Hill Academy, teachers will work above and beyond the standards provided by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and will engage with Rick Hansen Foundation School Program staff on best practices for inclusive education.
 

A Call to Action

The United Nations' International Day of Persons with Disabilities is December 3rd. The intent of the Day is to promote awareness about disability issues, mobilize support for inclusion and draw attention to the benefits of an accessible society for all. The desire to create a fully accessible and inclusive learning environment at the Hill Academy required educators and administrators to assess their curriculum and campus through a different lens: one that would see a way to meet the needs of students with and without disabilities.

As the International Day of Persons with Disabilities approaches, we invite all schools to use the resources provided by the Rick Hansen Foundation School Program to consider their own levels of accessibility and inclusion, and to see what steps they can take to become even more accessible and inclusive. For more information, go to www.rickhansen.com/schools.