She can play, but you will have to support her.
Your child cannot be part of this activity because there isn’t an accessible pathway.
If she wants to join, she must have a quiet voice and quiet hands.
Come play, but you will have to provide your own equipment.
We don’t do that here.
These are common replies I hear from programs, community organizations and schools. I experience disability as a parent and advocate for Bella, continuously questioning why systems uphold a logic that doesn’t serve the majority of disabled children and youth. As I share just a few of my personal experiences, I have to admit that it can be exausting to see how the ideology of ‘normal’ continues to be taken as the standard. Who deserves to feel safe and valued in our communities? Who are the people that are worthy of our time? Who is the one being protected and served? I continue to have these critical conversations in the spaces I am in.
So let’s think about it… What if schools, communities, policy makers, and people in positions of power adopt an intersectional approach to understanding the experience of disability? What if the spaces we are in were designed around disability?
I was recently approached by Scholastic as they wanted to share their newly launched children’s book, I Can, Too! with me. I had the privilege of meeting the Canadian author, Karen Autio. Karen shares that her daughter Annaliis opened up her eyes and heart to the world of disabilities. Annaliis was born with spina bifida and used a wheelchair from preschool onward.
I always like to share my Mom Behind the Label platform to help others see disability as a model, where we continuously learn to talk about it, conceptualize it, and work with it and how it is represented in our thinking and in the communities we live in.
Please welcome Karen Autio to my blog!
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Access to the appropriate equipment can be one of the biggest barriers for a disabled person to participate in play. Can you talk about your experiences with adaptive equipment and how the access to these accommodations helped Annaliis be able to access activities in your community?
KAREN: My daughter Annaliis had regular or occasional access to most of the adaptive equipment mentioned in I Can, Too! What a blessing! We were living in the Vancouver, BC, area, then moved to Kelowna, BC. Some equipment was passed on to us by child development centres or families whose child had outgrown the equipment, like a standing frame. Others, like sit-skis, are available to use at Big White, our local ski resort, through Powderhounds Adaptive Snow Sports. Beach and hiking wheelchairs are often loaned out at beaches and parks, or bookable through organizations like CRIS (Community Recreational Initiatives Society) Adaptive Adventures in Kelowna.
Annaliis’s access to a variety of adaptive devices enriched her life in so many ways, not only for the physical activity, but also the opportunities to socialize. She began therapeutic horseback riding as a preschooler using a surcingle with handles to hold onto and side walkers to maintain her balance. She loved being high on the horse’s back and chatting with everyone below! Having a hand-propelled tricycle passed on to us meant Annaliis could independently cycle on family walks and join other children riding bikes on the paved surfaces at school.
Using arm bands and later balance rings (like arm bands but made of dense foam), Annaliis could participate in swimming lessons, birthday pool parties, and even a swim race at Operation Trackshoes in Victoria, BC.
When Annaliis was four years old and ready to start using Reciprocating Gait Orthoses (RGOs), we had the expenses-paid opportunity to travel to Shriners Children’s Portland in Oregon for fitting and extensive training by a physical therapist. Annaliis was overjoyed to stand, walk using a walker, and even shovel snow with her family! During one trip to Portland she had the thrill of skiing in her RGOs on Mount Hood.
In writing I Can, Too!, I wanted to show the adaptive equipment in action, leaving identification and explanation until the reader comes to the glossary in the back matter. That way the focus is on my character Kayla active in her community doing the same activities as other children her age.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: I really like how the book takes the reader into different environments that foster play from an inclusion lens. Raising Bella continues to remind me that prioritizing equitable access to physical activities starts from creating an environment where everyone has a sense of belonging. Can you talk about the different physical spaces in the book, and how the concept of universal design allows all children to be part of the play?
KAREN: My thoughts immediately go to playgrounds, where children grow skills, confidence, and friendships. There were no accessible community playgrounds in Abbotsford, BC, where we lived when Annaliis was young. It was impossible for her to maneuver her wheelchair independently over pea gravel or woodchips, the common surfacing (older playgrounds with grass were marginally better). I found it difficult to push her wheelchair through the groundcover. If a child can’t reach the playground equipment where other children are playing, how can they ever join the fun? Universal design means there are no barriers—for example, a poured rubber surface in a playground can make the entire area accessible. Ensuring every piece of equipment can be reached provides inclusion, promoting belonging and connection so friendships can develop. Like in I Can, Too!
Next the forest and exploring nature come to mind. With a TrailRider or other hiking wheelchair, even a mountain path can be made accessible. Annaliis’s occupational therapist and physical therapist through school ensured she could participate in her class field trip (a hike in the mountains above Peachland, BC) by arranging for a TrailRider and volunteers to assist in getting Annaliis from start to finish. Like Kayla’s experience in the book, it was an exciting, inclusive adventure with her classmates.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: When I am out in the community with Bella, I am often approached with questions about Bella’s differences: “Why does she make those sounds? Why does she still drool? Can you tell me more about her leg braces?” I firmly believe that disability should not hinge upon knowing private information about the disabled person, as overtime I have realized that it perpetuates ableism in our society. When I was reading the book, I really valued how you didn’t identify the disabled children and their disabilities. Can you share the thought process behind this?
KAREN: I want Kayla to represent as many kids who use wheelchairs as possible. Yes, she’s modelled after Annaliis, who was born with spina bifida, but I hope lots of children can see themselves in my book. It doesn’t matter why one needs to use adaptive equipment. What matters is inclusion and accessibility to allow all children to join other kids in the same activities.
I think it’s important in my book to show how inclusion and accessibility are possible. When you meet someone with a disability, instead of staring or asking inappropriate personal questions, simply say hi and share your name. This is inclusive and welcoming.
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: As my 10 year old son read through the book, his first response was “This is great, this is how schools should be. Everyone needs to be able to play.” Your book is a great tool for educators to start talking about accessibility and inclusion with their students. What are your hopes for this book?
KAREN: I love your son’s reaction and saying, “Everyone needs to be able to play.” Agreed!
It gives me joy that readers are seeing themselves represented in I Can, Too! But I hope my book will open eyes and hearts of young and not so young readers, especially those who don’t know about adaptive equipment and what’s possible for increasing mobility. Perhaps some readers will even try out a new activity! Also, I hope I Can, Too! leads to many new friendships developing between people with and without disabilities.
I put together a discussion guide for teachers to use along with my book that helps increase students’ disability awareness. Also, I compiled a list of helpful online resources and recommended picture books with characters who have a disability. These teacher resources are available free to download from Scholastic Canada here (scroll down to “Extras”).
I would love to see educators sharing I Can, Too! with students and using my teacher resources to spark conversations leading to more inclusion. I wish that more school and community playgrounds would be built or renovated to be fully inclusive and accessible, like Julia’s Junction to which a portion of my royalties are being donated.
May I Can, Too! help to build acceptance, make connections, and grow understanding and empathy.
Choose to include!
MOM BEHIND THE LABEL: Thank you Karen for taking the time to contribute to this post! This book comes in English and French, and if you are interested in purchasing this book please visit Scholastic Canada, I Can, Too!.