Encouraging youth to expand their understanding of disability, accessibility, and inclusion

Teacher Shauna Stanyer with group of students
“I sow a lot of seeds as a teacher that I know one day will flourish in my students’ lives. Susan and I hope to see these seeds of growth cultivated in our kids so that they are later able to harvest them.” - Shauna Stanyer, teacher at Holy Cross Secondary School, Surrey, BC; she and her teaching partner, Susan Sousa, are 2017 RHFSP Difference Makers of the Year (educators)
Shauna Stanyer and her teaching partner, Susan Sousa, believe most students are eager to receive opportunities to bring about awareness and change for people with disabilities, and enhance the quality of life for all people.

“Most kids are really nice, empathetic, compassionate young people and sometimes they just need that little push to become more aware and insightful,” says Susan. “And once they get to know a student who has a disability, they respond appropriately, but even more so when they have some education about the needs of the person. Different can be scary, but helping students to understand others’ needs is a part of my job.”
Five years ago, Susan and Shauna’s principal at Holy Cross Secondary School in Surrey, BC, introduced them to the Rick Hansen Foundation School Program (RHFSP). Keen to expand their students’ understanding of disability, accessibility, and inclusion, they worked together to create an inter-curricular use of RHFSP resources across all grades. The resources, including the Abilities in Motion and Difference Maker toolkits, allow teachers to plan lessons that easily fit into each province or territory’s curriculum. They encourage students to be good citizens who are sensitive to inequality.

“Education is not just about what’s happening in school. It’s about giving students the skills to go on in life,” says Susan. “We want our students to see someone in the street with a disability with more compassion and more understanding.”

Gaining an appreciation of life’s challenges

Both teachers believe it’s important to reach out to those who might be marginalized and to be in solidarity with those whose basic human rights are not being met. Whether at staff retreats or in the classroom, the teachers can choose to support RHFSP lessons with a RHF Ambassador presentation.

RHF Ambassadors are a dynamic group of people with disabilities across Canada who share their stories of overcoming everyday barriers. Audiences can speak openly with Ambassadors to gain a greater understanding of living with a disability.

“Our students were able to relate to [RHF Ambassador] Stan Leyenhorst [who sustained a spinal cord injury in a diving accident]. They learned a lot from him about personal choices, consequences, and also overcoming life challenges,” says Shauna.
Students heard firsthand how accessibility impacts human dignity, and gained a greater appreciation for how Stan lives a productive, joyful life.

To deepen engagement with RHF Ambassadors, Susan and Shauna worked with RHF last year to organize an Innovation Day at Blusson Spinal Cord Centre in Vancouver. Students worked in groups with Ambassadors to make a game or an app accessible for people with disabilities. By providing their unique, relevant life experience, Ambassadors helped answer students’ questions and encourage their creativity.

Removing barriers to accessibility

Holy Cross students with simulated vision & hearing disabilities ready to do AIM activities.
The RHFSP has made Susan and Shauna more aware than ever of physical barriers to accessibility. While their school is old and dated in terms of accessibility, they recently wanted to accommodate a student who is hard of hearing. They installed a wall-mounted audio system connected to a microphone. When students make oral presentations, they can wear the mic, benefitting everyone.

The school now has accessible washrooms, with plans underway to fix the button opening the door to the lobby, and replace old doorknobs with more functional lever handles.

Cultivating a harvest

The seeds Susan and Shauna planted are already reaping a harvest in their graduates.

“As I think about all of my wonderful students, one young lady came to mind. She graduated last year and is currently studying science and plans to go into medicine,” says Shauna. “She was one of the key organizers of our annual social justice assembly and wants to continue with this passion in her studies in medicine.”

“And you have kids coming back after graduation that say, ‘I still remember what you taught me’—and that’s really rewarding,” says Susan.
The teachers would eventually like to implement a system for all Catholic schools in BC to use RHFSP resources. Complete and easy to use, the resources meet the core competencies of any curriculum expectations, are flexible with a variety of teaching styles, and help spark conversations that can change the culture of a classroom – or an entire school.

Both Susan and Shauna were humbled, honoured, and inspired to be 2017 RHFSP Difference Makers of the Year. It’s motivating them, they say, to implement even more of the resources, and increase the overall impact on their students and in the wider community.