New program inspires inclusion and acceptance among children and youth

5/26/2015

A new program in New Brunswick aims to foster inclusion and raise awareness of living with a disability among grade school children. To date, more than 2,000 students have learned firsthand – from program Champions – about the importance of diversity, acceptance and what it’s like to live and grow up with a disability.

The Champions for Inclusion program was created by the New Brunswick Disability Executive Network (NBDEN), a network of 12 major disability organizations who work collaboratively to support full inclusion and citizenship for New Brunswickers with a disability and their families.

“As part of the Champions for Inclusion program, champions volunteer their time to speak to students through classroom presentations and school assemblies at Anglophone and Francophone schools,” said Denise Coward, Provincial Director of CNIB, the organization coordinating the project on behalf of NBDEN.

Program champions have real experience living life to the fullest with a disability – whether it is mental illness or vision loss, being deaf or hard of hearing or having a mobility, intellectual or learning disability.

The program has 31 champions across the province, who live with a variety of disabilities and come from a wide range of backgrounds, including university graduates, athletes and musicians.

For 26-year-old champion, Kristen Barnes, inclusion means believing in and supporting the abilities of all individuals regardless of what challenges they face. Born legally blind, Barnes underwent cataract surgery at only 18 months and was later diagnosed with glaucoma when she was 13 years old.

Barnes is the first to admit that she struggled with fitting in and being accepted by her peers throughout childhood, with others not understanding the challenges of her disability or seeing her as equal.

Refusing to let vision loss keep her from accomplishing her goals or living life to the fullest, the Moncton resident became a fierce advocate for inclusion and strived to disprove anyone who had ever questioned her abilities.

In high school, Barnes excelled both academically and in extra-curricular activities – and upon graduation, was awarded the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award. She went on to complete her Bachelor of Arts in Law in Society and Sociology at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

Barnes currently serves as the Program Coordinator for the Canadian Mental Health Association of NB, and was recently selected as one of Atlantic Canada’s Top 50 Emerging Leaders of the 21st Century.

During their presentations to youth in grades K-8, many champions speak to their grade school journey and what inclusion meant to them as a student, and some even perform songs, play music and read braille stories aloud.

This unique program and its champions play an integral role in laying the foundation for an inclusive New Brunswick – a province where more than 125,000 individuals are currently living with a disability.

“By promoting inclusion among students and the province’s future leaders, the program hopes to instil an inclusive mindset and help foster barrier-free classrooms, workplaces, and, in turn, a society for New Brunswickers of all abilities,” said Coward.

Champions for Inclusion, which is currently funded by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, hopes to continue beyond the 2014-15 school year and expand to reach students in grades nine through 12.

To learn more about Champions for Inclusion or to schedule a presentation, please contact Melanie Belliveau at 506.857.4240 or email melanie.belliveau@cnib.ca.

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