So many of us have no idea who Emily Eaton is. Even those of us with some understanding of what it might be like to live with a disability have probably never heard of her. But it is because of her courage, and the determination of her family, that as a society, we look at people with challenges of all kinds differently.
Emily Eaton was born with cerebral palsy. This didn’t deter her parents and three older brothers who treated her like any normal sister. When she started kindergarten in a regular classroom, her parents had two important goals in mind. First, they felt that Emily would learn more if she was in a learning environment with peers who were not disabled. Second, they wanted the other children to become more aware of individuals with disabilities. This was going to be the community Emily would be a member of when she was an adult. They wanted her peers to get to know Emily, and for her to get to know them and the best place for this to happen was at school.
Emily loved school. She spent kindergarten and grade one at Maple Avenue School in a regular class. Her first educational assistant was understanding and supportive. Emily made friends and it seemed like everything was going well. Then the special needs tribunal decreed that Emily had to go to a special school. Her parents challenged this ruling, but afterwards, Emily’s new assistant turned out to be very different. It seemed like Emily was being set up to fail.
Twice the family, with the support of ARCH, The Advocacy Resource Center for the Handicapped, fought the ruling and lost. After the second loss Emily was moved to a new school that supported the integration of students with special needs. Even though it might be too late for Emily, the family continued to fight the ruling on behalf of all disabled people.
In December, 1994, they went to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. Many groups were now involved in the case, including the school board lawyers, the Canadian Disability Rights Council and the Ontario Association for Community Living. Emily and her group won! However, this judgment was challenged by the school board (and representatives from the governments of BC, Ontario and Quebec) Eventually the case was presented to the Supreme Court of Canada where the judges decreed that school boards had an obligation to do everything they could to integrated children like Emily and put them in special classrooms only as a last resort.
This would be an excellent read for teachers, students and their families, who are about to, or already have a special needs child in their classroom. Emily reminds us that inside each of us is someone who just wants to communicate and belong and if we take the time to make it happen, it will be well worth it.