Jennifer Newby has two boys, both of whom have autism and are home-schooled. She says they’ve been shut out of summer, spring break and other programming at the city’s facilities due to a lack of resources.
“I think they should have every opportunity that a typically developing child should have,” she told Global News.
“Yes they might need accommodations, they might need stuff shifted a little here and there, but they are so smart and they have so much to offer the world if they are given the opportunities to thrive and right now they’re not.”
Newby said her research found that there were more than 7,500 kids with a special needs diagnosis in the Surrey School District, whether it be behavioral, emotional or physical.
“That’s about one in every 10 Surrey students … and it’s also important to note those kids on the waitlist would not be captured by this,” she said.
By contrast, there was one single adapted program in the city — for wheelchair users only — available this summer, she said. During spring break, there was one week of camp with only nine spots in the entire city, she added.
Along with cutting her kids out of enrichment and social opportunities enjoyed by their peers, the lack of programming creates safety issues, she said.
Both of her children are fearless around water, but neither knows how to swim. Drowning is the number one cause of death in autistic children, she said.
Surrey general manager of parks, recreation and culture Laurie Cavan was not available for an interview, but in an emailed statement pointed to staffing issues.
“Like many communities in BC, Surrey is experiencing staffing challenges for aquatic instructors and lifeguards. Currently, the demand far exceeds the personnel we have to deliver an optimum level of programming,” she wrote.
“We are continually working to hire more qualified aquatic staff so we can offer additional adapted and regular programs at our pools.”
Cavan added that people with disabilities are welcome to bring their own support person to any city programming, but Newby said that option simply doesn’t work financially for most families.
She said she’d rather see the city hire education assistants from the school district, who are already trained to work with kids like hers and many of whom already struggle to make ends meet on the hours they’re offered.
“Why not utilize those skills?” she said.
It’s an approach Surrey Coun. Linda Annis said the city should be looking at, along with other “creative” ways to staff up.
“We know schools are closed through the summer, and what a great time for children to be able to go and participate in other activities like swimming or other camps,” Annis said.
“We need to make sure we’ve got the staff there who can work with these children to make sure they have every opportunity to learn how to swim and participate in other activities at our rec centres.”
Newby is calling on the city to make changes sooner than later, which would ensure that adapted opportunities are available for kids in every Surrey neighbourhood.
“They know the importance of some of these programs and how much it can do for all of us,” she said.
“When people talk about the pandemic isolation, I need them to understand that this is the reality for our kids all of the time.”