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Special-needs students assigned garbage duty at Vancouver school

September 19, 2011. 2:56 pm Section: B.C. Education Report

Posted by: Janet Steffenhagen

The following guest post was written by my colleague Kim Pemberton: While waiting for a meeting with administration at my daughters high school recently I recognized two developmentally delayed young men, who attend the life skills class there, rummaging through a garbage can. One of them was on his hands and knees wearing over-sized plastic yellow gloves picking out plastic bottles and juice containers. A couple of typical students passed by them laughing. What troubled me about this image is the message being sent to typical students. That message being special needs students are somehow inferior to students attending the mainstream classes. Why is it acceptable for students with challenges to dumpster dive by picking up recyclables the typical students thoughtlessly threw away? How can a school community ever reach true inclusion if they allow their special needs students to be treated as second class students? Schools do need to recycle but wouldnt a better approach be an inclusive one where every student at that school participate in the recycling program? If every student was told they too would do a shift picking through the garbage perhaps they wouldnt be so quick to throw their recyclables in the trash? I was told at my daughters school the recycling program by the schools life skills class is a long-standing one and the students even have the opportunity to attend at the Vancouver School Board offices and get to know the top echelon there as they go pick up their recyclables which is converted to cash for the school. Just because its been happening for a long time doesnt make it right. So I called Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus who said while she is aware some special needs students participate in recycling programs she assumed they were just picking up from blue recycling boxes not garbage cans. Bacchus said she would follow up with staff to see if the practice of using special needs students to do the recycling is widespread. In a follow-up e-mail she wrote throughout B.C. all school districts develop opportunities for (special needs) students to do small jobs and that in secondary schools recycling gives students an out of classroom activity, an opportunity to communicate with a variety of people on their route and physical movement.

She added each secondary school in Vancouver does this in a slightly different ways, giving the example of Gladstone where students in the life skills program go to the Education Centre and do the paper recycling for the offices. I agree with you that the image of students in Life Skills programs digging through garbage in front of their typical peers is a concern, particularly if theyre the only ones doing that work. Successful and authentic inclusion continues to be a work in progress and I appreciate you bringing this topic to my attention so I can ensure it is given some careful consideration. My hope is Bacchus will ask staff to stop allowing secondary schools to allow their special needs students to in effect dumpster dive and instead give this opportunity to all students. Most life skill classes that Im aware of rarely have interactions with the typical students, and from what I saw with the two young men sorting through the trash there was no communication between them while on their pick-up route with others around just typical students who passed by them laughing. Real communication can happen if those typical students are brought down a notch and see themselves on the same level as the students in the Life Skills class. Wouldnt it be a great learning opportunity for them to work alongside the special needs students sorting through the recyclables instead? If the goal is authentic inclusion in our schools the VSB and school administrators need to look at it at the micro-level. With a recycling program, for instance, provide the right opportunities for it to happen with all students instead of setting up a two tier student system which appears to be the common practice throughout B.C.