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A few of the kids at a school in Montréal are different: they’re able-bodied – but, as Lesley Evans Ogden discovers, they’re learning not to see the difference.

As I enter the Mackay Centre School’s pre-kindergarten classroom, one group of children is sitting at a table doing art. Elrik Armas is tracing a plastic purple cabbage onto a large sheet of mural paper. At the same table, Sara Johnson is finishing a colourful pastel drawing of a house. Another student in the class is eating. As the rehabilitation staff member slowly squeezes a syringe, a beige liquid flows through a feeding tube, entering the child’s body somewhere out of sight, underneath his clothing. 

Mackay is a school in Montréal for children who have physical disabilities, deafness, and communication disorders. Some of the children have disorders that render them unable to swallow, sometimes the result of a tracheotomy, sometimes because the muscles required for chewing and swallowing don’t work. Rehabilitation staff members work quietly and efficiently alongside the teachers, giving feeding, toileting and medical help to students who require it, with minimal disruption to their learning. For more specialised medical attention, there is a hospital-like room adjacent to the principal’s office, where students come and go to receive their medications, injections or other treatments.

But there are other children at the school without any physical or communication impairments. Mackay has a reverse integration (RI) programme, which brings non-disabled children into small classrooms, integrating them with the others. Up to 15 RI children are accepted each year, with usually no more than two or three per classroom.

“Time to clean up,” says the infectiously cheerful pre-kindergarten teacher, Pansy Drury. Art time is over.

Drury began teaching at the school in 1974, and explains that the benefits of the RI programme run in two directions. She typically has three RI students within her class of about eleven. When they begin this first year of school, the RI kids “usually know their letters, and their name, so they’re really models for learning and for behaviour,” she says.

“Often, with our clients, we don’t get responses because of language, or lack of understanding, but when they see the RI kids responding, then they are encouraged to try.” In free play and structured activities, RI kids are valuable models of turn-taking, sharing and vocabulary. “It’s terrific,” says Drury. And as for the RI children, they “develop a tremendous self-concept,” she explains. “They learn an incredible amount of empathy, that they then bring back to their home environment and their home school when they go back.” They learn that you treat kids with disability as normal.

Heidy Pinsonneault, the mother of Elrik in the pre-kindergarten classroom, has all three of her sons attending Mackay this year. Kian, her eldest son, was diagnosed with speech and language issues before he started school, and began at Mackay in pre-kindergarten. By the time Kian reached grade 1, their second son, Egan, had also been diagnosed with speech-language issues, so he also came to Mackay for pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and grade 1. “Then, our last little guy, Elrik, was assessed, and found to have no language issues, but we decided it would be nice for him to also do his pre-K at Mackay,” she says.

Pinsonneault and her husband were attracted to the RI programme for two reasons. First, it was appealing on a social basis: “You get to interact with lots of different people.” Kids start asking questions when they’re little, and get familiar with disability, “so they don’t have that discomfort,” she says. Second, it was a chance for Elrik, who will attend a new school nearer home from next year, to go to school with his brothers. “He got one year with his brothers and we filled his little heart with that,” says Pinsonneault. Asked what Elrik says at home about his school friends, Pinsonneault is apologetic. “I’m sorry if this is not helpful for you, but he sees no difference in these kids.”

Erika Ellingsen and her grade 3 classmates are putting finishing touches on painted paper sunflowers. The flowers are part of the stage set for a yoga poem about spring, for their performance the following morning at the school’s variety show.

Noticing me taking notes on an iPad with a turquoise and metal stylus pen, something she hasn’t seen before, Erika says, “You write with that thingy?” Then she asks if she can try it out. Permission granted, Erika begins doodling on my screen, writing “Hello! My name is Erika ☺,” and later, “Winter is awesome,” in joined-up writing more legible than my own. She is referring, I discover, to a movie-star dolphin with a prosthetic tail, not the season. Erika begins telling me excitedly about her family’s upcoming summer trip to Russia and eastern Europe, but we’re soon interrupted by her teacher, politely asking me to speak to twins Béa and Christina Johnson, RI students, so that Erika, who is easily distracted, can do her work.

The following morning at the yoga poem performance, Erika is the narrator. “One spring morning, the sun rises,” she says. The rest of the children, wearing their black school T-shirts, stretch into yoga poses to soothing, slow, instrumental music. “Butterflies, of all colours – orange, green, magenta, violet, electric blue, yellow, aquamarine, and coral red…” Erika continues.

Performance complete, it’s followed by other classes doing robot dances, rhythmic gymnastic dances with ribbons, animated films like Goldigoose and the Three Bunnies, and a movie by one of the deaf classes, its actors touring the school to illustrate some new vocabulary – signs for “Mackay School”, “play”, “gym”, “principal”, “teacher”, “class”, “desk”, “computer”, “library”, “read”, “story” and “good job”. Most of the audience – students from the entire school – are signing along to the movie with no prompting. A sign-language interpreter on stage also simultaneously interprets the narration.

At the end of the performance, as students file back to their classrooms, Erika is beaming. She passes the school’s Principal, Patrizia Ciccarelli, in the hallway, and says, “It’s the first time I’ve been a narrator and used a microphone on stage.” Ciccarelli smiles proudly. “You did a great job,” she says as Erika whizzes off in her electric wheelchair, her supportive body brace adorned with a butterfly and heart design.

Many of the children are wearing their black Mackay T-shirts with white stars on the front. On the back of the T-shirts, “We see abilities, not disabilities” is emblazoned in silver lettering. On the doors of many of the classrooms are posters of Winter the dolphin, with the words, “If Winter can, I can.”

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