By MIKE NORRIS, THE WHIG-STANDARD
November 25, 2010
On a wall in a classroom in the basement of Queen Elizabeth Collegiate and Vocational Institute is a poster that includes the phrase “Accessibility for
The irony is staggering.
For Heaven Smith, 16, who has cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair since kindergarten, her two-plus years at QECVI have been an accessibility nightmare.
The school, which opened in 1955, does not have an elevator, making it impossible for the Grade 11 student to attend classes on the second floor or in the basement — except for when her father, Ken, straps her into a manual wheelchair and takes her down the stairs to the basement so she can attend art class, one of her favourite courses.
She also does not have access to the school’s two cafeterias, located in the basement and on the second floor. This fall, she was given permission to eat lunch in the library.
During her first two years at the school, she ate in the hallway, usually alone. If her friends were busy and unable to get lunch for her, Smith didn’t
“High school is supposed to be about making memories, connecting with people and planning your future,” said the soft-spoken teen during an interview in the school library this week.
“My memories are pretty much of sitting in the hallway alone while my friends are doing other stuff.”
“It breaks my heart,” said Ken Smith of what his daughter has had to endure.
Heaven and Ken have pleaded with Limestone District School Board officials for the past two years to make the school more accessible. It wasn’t until Heaven enrolled at Queen Elizabeth two years ago that an electric door was installed in the front entrance — Ken said there are times when students reach up and turn off the power switch — and that a staff washroom was converted into a wheelchair-accessible washroom.
When she wants to use the washroom, which is usually locked, Heaven must notify her educational assistant, who unlocks the door. (Even if Heaven was given a key to the wash-room, it would be useless to her — the lock is more than four feet up the door, putting it out of the reach of the wheelchair-bound young woman.)
“It’s a public building,” said Heaven. “It has to be accessible. Is this not a violation of human rights?”
“It’s been fight after fight trying to get something done here,” said Ken.
“Since Grade 9 they’ve passed us off to different people,” said Heaven. “They said they’re waiting for funding for an architect, but they knew I was coming since Grade 9.”
When Heaven enrolled at QECVI, she was living with her mother in the school’s district, but has since moved in with her father, who lives in Polson Park. She has the option of attending Loyalist Collegiate or Regiopolis- Notre Dame, but is adamant about staying at QECVI because she has friends there and
likes the courses that are offered.
She attended Grade 8 at St. Peter Catholic School on Seventh Avenue after attending Holy Family from grades 1 through 7.
“The Catholic board was right on it right away,” said Ken. “St. Peter’s was amazing. They built a ramp (up to Heaven’s portable classroom), no questions
Brenda Hunter, director of education for the Limestone District School Board, said an elevator to the second floor and a lift to the basement should be
in place at QECVI by the end of January.
She said the board responds to accessibility issues on an “as needs basis.” While she wouldn’t talk specifically about Heaven Smith’s issues, citing privacy concerns, Hunter said a QECVI student needed to get to the basement and that the class couldn’t be moved to the main level.
Heaven takes art classes in the school’s basement.
“A need arose for a student to access the lower level,” said Hunter, adding that the issue came to the board’s attention this year and that plans for the
elevator and lift were put into place at the end of August.
“Certain classes are more difficult to move,” said Hunter. “Where it’s not possible to move the class, we’ll move the student to the class.”
The cost to install the elevator and lift is $100,000, said Hunter. The money will come from the $250,000 the board sets aside annually in its capital renovation budget to support accessibility for students.
The school board, she said, receives no funding from the province for accessibility projects.
On the days when Ken Smith works a 12-hour overnight shift at Novelis, he drops by QECVI in the afternoon to help Heaven get to her 1:20 p.m. art class
in the basement. He goes out for a coffee, then returns to the school to bring her up the stairs and take her home when the class ends at 2:35.
When he works a day shift, Heaven attends another teacher’s art class on the main level. On those days, the school bus picks up Heaven at 2:15, so she misses the last half of the class.
Due to liability issues, no school board employees will risk taking Heaven up or down the stairs.
Heaven was disappointed when she received her schedule in September and learned that art class was in the basement.
“The year before, visual arts was on the main level,” she said. “Why they moved it downstairs I don’t know.
“It was at a point where I didn’t want to come to school any more.”
Art class, said Heaven, who likes to sketch landscapes and animals, is her outlet.
“And then to not have it …,” she said, her voice trailing off.
Her second class of the day is anthropology, which is on the main level but sometimes holds computer labs on the second floor. When that happens, Heaven goes to the library with one or two other students and works on a laptop.
“It’s not fair that we’re not included,” she said. “Their version of inclusion is to make two other people sit with me. I can’t ask for help (from the teacher).”
Inaccessibility to the second floor has prevented Heaven from enrolling in a couple of courses that interested her. In Grade 9 she wanted to take a computer class but couldn’t because school officials said it would be too difficult to move the computers downstairs.
She also wanted to take a photography course.
“I was excited and signed up for it, but the developing room is upstairs, so that shot that down,” she said.
“It makes me mad. I feel left out. I don’t like the fact my future is being planned for me.”
One day last year she asked Ken to carry her up to the second floor where the cafeteria and gymnasium bleachers are located.
“She wants to feel part of it and eat with her friends,” he said.
“She can’t go where (classmates and friends) go. It hurts her social life.”
Heaven, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age four, is tired of being told what she can’t do at QECVI.
“That’s not how it should be,” she said. “I should have some shred of dignity.
“The lack of accessibility is really limiting. I can’t do the things I should be able to do.
“It’s limiting me academically, socially. There are roadblocks everywhere.”
Last year she was unable to accompany her French class on a trip to Montreal. The teacher, said the Smiths, didn’t take into account Heaven’s accessibility needs when planning the excursion.
The teacher, according to the Smiths, told them that one student shouldn’t hold the rest back.
Following two years of “suffering in silence,” on Sept. 9, the third day of the new school year, Heaven wrote a letter detailing her frustration with the
school and gave it to new principal Janet Sanderson, who passed it on to school board officials.
“I’m sick of being pushed around,” said Heaven, explaining why she wrote the letter. “It’s been really hard. I usually think positively and see a silver
lining in things, but this has been building up and reached a boiling point.
“I’m not a slacker or stupid, but that’s how I feel. It’s frustrating how limiting it is.”
Despite all that she has endured, Heaven has excelled in the classroom. She has received a Certificate of Achievement in recognition for overall participation and outstanding work habits, and was a subject award winner last year in five courses: careers, civics, academic English, academic history and media arts.
“She’s very well respected and a hard worker,” said Sanderson.
Ken Smith said that QECVI staff members have been sympathetic to Heaven’s situation.
“Most of the teachers here have been pretty decent about it,” he said. “Most of them can’t believe what’s happening.
“The principal last year (Al Baker) wasn’t much help. The principal this year (Sanderson) has been really good. She said we’re being too patient.
“She always says, ‘How are you?’ She’s more open, more apt to doing something, getting on board with us.”
Unfortunately, Smith can’t say the same about school board officials. He said he has talked many times with Marg Akey, coordinator of the Accessibility
“She said classes would be brought to (Heaven’s) level (on the main floor), but nothing ever got done,” he said. “It’s a different story every time.
“After a while, I stopped calling,” he said. “They tell you the same thing over and over. Every three months she would say, ‘We’re going to have a meeting.’ ”
When Akey was asked about her dealings with the Smiths, neither she nor Hunter would discuss it, citing privacy concerns.
“We accommodate a student’s needs as they come forward,” said Akey. “We look to see what things we can do.”
Last year, Akey said, the board completed 85 accessibility projects, including the installation of electric doors and barrier-free washrooms.
Sanderson, who came to the school in September after serving as principal at Sharbot Lake High School, joined Ken Smith in his lobbying efforts.
“I requested to the folks at the school board to make this building more accessible,” she said.
“Heaven is a valued member of our (QECVI) community. I want to encourage her to continue at QE. We’d like to make this building as accessible as possible.
“She’s frustrated and that’s not what I want to see. I hope she feels like part of the school.”
“We want our schools to be inclusive and welcoming to all students,” she said. “It’s important to us to accommodate students, parents and guardians as best as we’re able.”
Heaven doesn’t feel included at QECVI.
It wasn’t until last year that she told her father she ate alone in the hall every day.
“She won’t say too much,” said Ken. “She holds a lot in.”
“I tend not to be very vocal,” said Heaven. “I suffer in silence. I’m not the type to draw attention to myself.
“I felt really left out. It was embarrassing.”
She said that eating in the library is better than in the hallway, but added: “I’d rather be around people. I want to feel included.”
Every day a student from the restaurant services program brings lunch to Heaven in the library.
She still eats alone.
Heaven has a creative flair. She likes to sketch, belongs to the school’s Anime Club and has a passion for writing poetry and fiction.
“When I’m stressed, I put it down on paper,” she said.
She wants to go to university to earn an English degree and eventually become an author.
“I want to write an autobiography about my life to hopefully inspire people,” she said. “Inspiring people is one of my goals.”
Perhaps some people will find her campaign to improve accessibility at her high school just that — inspirational.
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