Toronto mother spends days in van outside school in effort to provide accessibility

Click to play video: 'Special needs finally being address for Toronto student'
Special needs finally being address for Toronto student
WATCH ABOVE: Action at last for a Toronto family. Last month, Global News brought you the story of a student with disabilities requiring special assistance while at school. Her mother stepped in, and, as Caryn Lieberman reports, there is finally hope for change – Nov 15, 2022

For nearly three months, Toronto mother Michelle Cousins has spent her days outside her daughter’s high school inside the family van in case she is needed to help out with a trip to the bathroom.

“She just wanted a normal experience and a part of that is using the elevator, a part of that is going to the bathroom without it being a big deal and preserving her own safety and her dignity as well,” said Cousins.

Fourteen-year-old Colette Cousins has arthrogryposis, which causes joint stiffness. She uses a wheelchair.

Cousins spends six hours a day, Monday to Friday, in the van parked around the corner and Colette sends her a text message when she needs assistance.

“I think she’s the best mom in the world because no other parent would do this for their child,” said Colette.

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As Cousins explained it, educational assistants should be helping Colette in the bathroom, but it is not always possible if there is not a sufficient number of staff on hand.

In addition, Cousins said the mechanical lift, which is available in the school bathroom, is not the best option for her daughter.

“Someone has to remove her undergarments for her. She’s exposed. If we were in a situation where she had to do that for sure, we would come to terms with that but she she’s never known that,” she explained.

The teen attends Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School.

Her mother told Global News in October that for two years she researched schools in Toronto in order to ensure they found the right one for Colette.

“The whole thing is maintaining my daughter’s dignity and if she can do this, going to the bathroom, if she can do it, maintaining her dignity and her modesty while keeping herself safe and her caregivers safe, that is what we should be doing,” she said.

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Despite first sharing her story publicly last month, Cousins said no one from the school board reached out to her.

“When you have a mom that’s digging in her heels, that’s a sign that something’s wrong and if something’s wrong, they should have said, ‘OK, let’s put the brakes on here and find out what’s wrong’,” she said, adding, “Nobody contacted me, not even my trustee contacted me.”

In an email last month, a spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic District School Board stated, “While we are unable to speak to the specifics of individual cases due to privacy laws, the school has an elevator, accessible washroom and an operable hoyer lift. Support staff are also available and assigned as needed to assist any student that may require accommodations.”

One disability advocate called this a “classic case of government inaction.”

David Lepofsky, the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, said he gives a failing grade to both the education ministry and the school boards in Ontario for insufficient accommodations for students with disabilities.

“It’s outrageous. Too many parents of students with disabilities have to battle school boards one at a time just to get basic accommodations,” said Lepofsky.

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“Our government has in hand a comprehensive road map and report on how to make our school system effectively serving students with disabilities … and yet parents have to battle these barriers.”

Lepofsky was on the provincially-appointed Kindergarten to Grade 12 (K-12) Education Standards Development Committee that, he said, “wrote the road map for how to fix this.”

“The Ford government has had our report in its hands and our roadmap for over half a year and they’ve done nothing with it. They have announced nothing and the result is that moms like this are left to have to battle one school board at a time, one barrier at a time and kids with disabilities deserve better,” he said.

Lepofsky is calling for an internal appeal system in every school board that can intervene and fix accessibility problems and he would like to see the Ministry of Education prepared to intervene when needed.

“School boards need the leadership of the ministry. But even if the Ministry of Education fails to show leadership and that’s what’s happening with Stephen Lecce right now, school boards should show their own leadership by taking this comprehensive blueprint and reform report and implementing it themselves,” he added.

Grace Lee, spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, told Global News in a statement the government has funded the hiring of nearly 7,000 additional education workers and increased funding for special education “to the highest levels ever recorded.”

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“While resources, funding and staffing is increasing, we expect all boards to ensure students are accommodated and respected while in Ontario schools,” said Lee in her statement.

Despite not receiving a call from the school board, or her school trustee, Cousins said there is progress and she is hopeful her daughter will soon have the appropriate accommodation in the school bathroom.

“I was on a call with the school and superintendent of special education and part of it was an update to sort of see where we’re at and where we’re going. I updated them on my pursuit, if you will, of the appropriate commode and transfer board for Collette and I’ve managed to identify that and I’ve been working to get it ready,” she explained.

Cousins will then move on to training the staff to help Colette use the new equipment.

That could take another three weeks.

“By the time it gets handed off to the school, it’ll be Dec. 5,” said Cousins, who intend to remain in her van until the process is complete.

After that, she said, she plans to tackle elevator accessibility issues at the school.

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“As of right now, she can’t use it because it’s not updated to like a fob system … that was something that was recommended back on June 21 and by the sounds of it, nothing was done.”

Colette said her mother is fighting this battle, not only for her, but for all children living with disabilities.

“To make sure that disabled kids get the education and the freedom that they need to be more independent in the future because school is all about learning independence,” she said.

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