Challenging pre-existing ideas or beliefs about individuals with disabilities and celebrating those differences is the theme of an annual Selkirk College event that brings together the community.
Put on by the Classroom and Community Support Worker Program students, “Celebrating Diverse Ability: A Walk in the Park” will take place on March 16 on the Selkirk College Castlegar Campus. There will be music, movie clips, simulations and art activities between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. in The Pit. The event is free, open to the public and very participatory.
“Students design the entire event, from big picture vision to the practical on the ground happenings,” says instructor Jane Green. “They have the opportunity to experience all aspects of planning, coordination of team work and moving forward together. At the end of the day, everyone is happy and proud of the collective result. How cool is that?”
The idea for the Celebrating Diverse Ability event began 10 years ago when Selkirk College disability services advisor Trish Foy approached Green to suggest a mind-changing event. The idea was to encourage the college and community to look through a different lens at how we all feel when we see or experience someone who moves through the world differently — whether the way they think, move, behave, or speak.
A decade later, students in the program have been enhancing their educational journey by planning a major college and community event that has evolved each March.
“Organizing this event and advocating for people with diverse abilities is part of our work as classroom and support workers,” says Chantal Lunardi, a full-time student. “Doing it instead of talking about doing it is the best way to learn. Besides, we get to have fun with new people and to make a big mess in The Pit!”
Over the last 10 years the event has grown in popularity, bringing in individuals and their support workers from Trail, Nelson, Salmo, Nakusp, Grand Forks and Castlegar. Participants get to the Castlegar campus through snowy days (like a few years back when a van load of eager participants arrived from Grand Forks) and sometimes in style (two years ago a group arrived from Trail in a limousine). There is often a surprise flash mob and students are busy learning sign language for some of the music.
If opening eyes and breaking down barriers is the ultimate goal, there are plenty of signs that it’s working.
Jeff Lafortune and his support worker Cathy Lafortune (also his mom) have participated in all the Celebrate Diverse Abilities events since 2005. A mentor for the last 20 years, Lafortune received a honourary Selkirk College diploma in 2011 which motivated the institution to build a ramp to access the stage. Lafortune has contributed to the reality of accessibility on the Castlegar Campus and Mir Centre for Peace.
“Jeff’s presence in the program reduces the gap between theory and practice,” says Green. “The students learn to simply be around a person with multiple and profound disabilities and to appreciate his unique contributions. Cathy has seen a lot of changes in the college over the 20 years she rolled Jeff’s wheelchair around. She can now assist Jeff to go from one end to the college to the other without having to push his chair outside, and at time, through the snow.”
This year’s theme of A Walk in the Park was not without its questions. During discussion, the idea of having an “inclusive” event was pondered, considering not everybody who participates can walk. Students were provided perspective from Ben Poznekoff, a friend of the class, who suggested the theme and the theme song for the event (Trooper’s “We’re Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Time).
“I don’t walk,” he says. “I still enjoy it. Going for a walk is very therapeutic, calming, and could be easy just like diversity should be.”
Poznekoff’s invitation to all is to “have fun!” When asked what the most important quality he is looking for in a support worker, Poznekoff replied: “They have to enjoy their life!”