As of May 23, 2023, members of CUPE 5047 have been on strike for nearly three weeks. Educational program assistants (EPAs), Indigenous student support workers, African Nova Scotian support workers, child and youth care practitioners, early childhood educators, and many other school support staff in the Halifax region, all members of CUPE 5047, have been on strike for almost three weeks. They are fighting for a fair deal, reflected in a new contract, including a living wage for the work they do throughout the school year.
Strike highlights huge gaps in inclusive practices
The lack of funding, support staff, and substitute teachers, as well as poor teacher retention, in public education has always disabled a large group of students, and not only students with diagnosed disabilities.
Even without a strike, disabled and neurodivergent students are still routinely excluded from the school experience. The strike means that hundreds of disabled students who would usually attend school with support for a variety of reasons (personal care being one of them) were told that during the strike they would not be allowed to attend.
There are still, however, hundreds more students, thousands in fact, who are attending school and deeply struggling with the lack of support available. Historically, they always have. Disabled and neurodivergent students who are deemed “less disabled” have been permitted to attend school. Indigenous students and African Nova Scotian students (unless they are ‘too disabled’) are also still attending school, albeit without the culturally relevant and safe support provided by support staff.
By refusing to meet CUPE 5047’s common sense demands of a fair deal, ableism remains at the foundation of our societal structures. The working conditions experienced by all members of the educational community are students’ learning conditions.
When Nova Scotians were told during the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic that ‘schools are the best place for children to be’, I questioned this statement. Are schools the safest place for all students to be? As an educator in a public school, I would love to say absolutely yes. But, as a multiply-neurodivergent/disabled and chronically ill person who teaches and supports young disabled and neurodivergent people, my own lived experience informs otherwise. And my PhD research, which centres anti-ableism, inclusive education, and pre-service teaching, also informs me otherwise.
I believe in public education. I believe that Nova Scotia’s newest Inclusive Education Policy is both one of the first of its kind anywhere and opens the door to some fantastic and desperately needed changes in our education system, including a move from the medical model to the social model of disability. And this strike has hopefully highlighted the huge gaps in our inclusive praxis for many more people outside of the disability community.
Disabled people have always known how exclusionary inclusive education is. Although I cannot speak on behalf of the entire disability community, I am relieved the gaps that I and many others have been speaking about are finally being seen and experienced by others. Sure, we may have a strong theoretical base in the Inclusive Education Policy, but as of today I haven’t seen much of any practice of these policies within our schools or classrooms.
Anti-ableism key to building equitable schools and communities
To be truly inclusive as a society, a school community, an education system, we need to be anti-ableist. TL Lewis, American abolitionist community lawyer, educator and organizer has worked in community to create a working definition of ableism each year since 2019. As of 2022, TL along with a community of disabled Black/negatively racialized folks define ableism as:
able·ism /ˈābəˌlizəm/ noun A system of assigning value to people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence, and fitness. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in eugenics, anti-Blackness, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. This systemic oppression that leads to people and society determining people’s value based on their culture, age, language, appearance, religion, birth or living place, “health/wellness”, and/or their ability to satisfactorily re/produce, “excel” and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. (TL’s Blog, 2022)
Our anti-ableist movement needs allies – all social justice movements do.
This strike is the result of the systemic ableism that is imbedded within our society. The ableism that pays women, non-binary and trans folks less than their cisgendered male colleagues, the ableism that underemploys disabled folks, the ableism that ‘others’ community members based on race, ethnicity, cultural knowledge, gender, and sexuality. The ableism that undervalues Indigenous ways of knowing. The same ableism undervalues, underpays, and overworks people in care positions because of the exploitative nature of capitalism.
School support workers experience ableism everyday in the workplace. They are denied decent wages so they can support their families and community. They are not included in the program planning process. These are just two examples of how my colleagues who are constantly on the front lines of maintaining and promoting student wellness and who are now on the frontlines of a new wave of the labour movement here in Nova Scotia experience ableism.
Education support workers are not alone. Teachers, nurses, caregivers, community organizers, mental health support folks, social workers, and the “essential workers” who kept our grocery stores and pharmacies open during a global mass death event, have all experienced ableism under a power structure that values profit over human progress and consumerism over community building.
Most of our students experience ableism and if this strike has shown us anything, it is how disabling our school system still is. And not just disabling for disabled students, but for so many who have been historically and currently ‘othered’ and oppressed. This can and does include teachers, administrators, families, and support workers because we are all intersectional people. There is no community without all of the community members.
An anti-ableist approach is, I believe, one of the best ways forward. Part of being anti-ableist is ensuring equity and inclusion involves everyone in a school system, from the students to the administrators, teachers, and support staff. It means we understand our access needs and understand and honour the access needs of others. We provide support when asked, rather than question why support is needed.
Building cross-movement solidarity
Anti-ableism recognizes that anyone can become disabled with a lack of support and access to community. When I say I am a disabled person, I do not mean that my medical diagnosis (or self-diagnosis in some folks’ cases) impairs me, I mean that I am impaired by the system and power structure that I live within.
If Nova Scotia truly is stronger together, then that can exclude no one. If we have decided as a province through our policies and acts of legislation that we no longer choose to exclude others, then we must be actively involved in the movement to include everyone equitably.
Anti-ableism is theory as much as it is practice. It is an action, a doing. If we truly want to take an anti-ableist approach based on justice and liberation we have to understand that my liberation is your liberation is our liberation and my success, is your success, is our success.
Right now, CUPE 5047 members are on the picket line fighting against ableism in our schools in its many forms. By supporting them, we can contribute to growing the anti-ableism movement. Cross-movement solidarity creates safe and inclusive spaces to learn from one another, and isn’t that what education is all about?
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