Albertans want more help for kids with special needs but many aren’t aware of struggles

While many Albertans believe the provincial government isn’t doing enough when it comes to education, recreation and housing for children with special needs, a large percentage are also unaware of the challenges the community faces, according to a new Mainstreet poll.

Holding hands and interacting with her loved ones is another way Emily enjoys spending time. Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald.

Calgary photojournalist Christina Ryan and her daughter Emily Pitchers, 16, who has numerous medical conditions including Down Syndrome, epilepsy and severe developmental delays. Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald.

Annalise Klingbeil, Calgary Herald March 30, 2016

The poll of 2,501 random Albertans comes in the wake of a Calgary Herald series and documentary examining the stories and struggles of children in Calgary with special needs.

Nearly one out of every 100 Alberta kids is classified as having special needs.

The Mainstreet/Postmedia poll asked respondents if the province is doing enough when it comes to housing, education, recreational opportunities and accessibility for people under the age of 19 with special needs.

For most questions, approximately one-third of respondents were unsure about how adequately the province was meeting the various needs of children with disabilities.

Pamela Francis, a Calgarian with a 12-year-old daughter who has Rett Syndrome, wasn’t surprised by the numbers.

Pamela Francis and her daughter Emma, 12. Christina Ryan Photo, Calgary Herald

Pamela Francis and her daughter Emma, 12. Christina Ryan Photo, Calgary Herald

Francis said before her daughter, Emma, was diagnosed, she didn’t know anyone with a child with special needs. After the diagnosis, it took time and effort to navigate the various supports available.

“Before Emma was born, we knew nothing about this whole community,” she said.

“In the beginning, you’re floundering, you don’t know where to turn… Talking to other parents was the greatest resource for us.”

Francis has since met parents who’ve moved to Alberta with their special-needs child because of the government support available here, but she noted programs and funds aren’t always easy to access.

“We feel like we have to fight for every dollar of funding. We have to validate that we need it,” she said.

Mainstreet pollster Quito Maggi said it’s not unusual for poll respondents to lack opinions on topics they’re unfamiliar with.

“If you don’t have a special-needs family member, or friend . . . you (may not) have much of an opinion,” he said.

“It’s one of these issues where the more it’s discussed and brought to light . . . the more people will form an opinion about it.”

Among the poll respondents who had formed an opinion, 55 per cent of Albertans said the government isn’t doing enough when it comes to education for special-needs kids, 37 per cent said the same for recreational services, 42 per cent for housing and 33 per cent for accessibility.

Education Minister David Eggen wasn’t available for an interview Tuesday, but said in a statement that in the 2015-16 school year, the government is providing $428 million – approximately $12 million more than the previous school year – for inclusive education supports and resources.

“We are listening to students, parents and teachers. We commit to work just as hard as they do to support the best possible learning conditions for each student. We need to keep working with teachers and parents to get it right when supporting students with special needs,” Eggen said in the statement.

In a statement, Minister of Human Services Irfan Sabir said the safety and well-being of children with special needs is a priority for the provincial government.

“We are committed to ensuring that every Albertan has the resources and support they need to reach their full potential,” he said.

But Liberal Leader David Swann said he believes there are insufficient supports across the province for people with special needs, especially serious physical disabilities and autism.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard from many parents with special-needs kids who feel very stretched, distressed and lacking in the support, whether it’s the emotional support, financial support, transportation support,” he said.

The principals with Level Playing Field, from the left, accessibility strategist Darby Lee Young, design director Harold Crittenden and designer Tirzah van Lindenberg, in the home office of Crittenden in Calgary Tuesday February 9, 2016. It is a new company about to be launched as consultants in accessible design. Ted Rhodes Photo, Postmedia.

The principals with Level Playing Field, from the left, accessibility strategist Darby Lee Young, design director Harold Crittenden and designer Tirzah van Lindenberg, in the home office of Crittenden in Calgary Tuesday February 9, 2016. It is a new company about to be launched as consultants in accessible design. Ted Rhodes Photo, Postmedia.

Darby Lee Young works at Level Playing Field, a consulting company she recently founded in Calgary to help businesses across North America become more accessible.

The former para-alpine ski racer said she believes the provincial government could be doing more to help people with special needs.

Her suggestions include creating more accessible housing, starting a rebate program to reward businesses that go above and beyond the building code when it comes to accessibility, and creating provincial legislation, similar to what exists in Ontario.

“Having a provincial disabilities act would be helpful, but if we do it, we need a way to enforce it,” she said.

Sixteen per cent of poll respondents said the province is doing enough when it comes to education for special-needs children, 34 per cent said recreational services were adequate, 23 per cent said housing was good enough and 34 per cent said the province is meeting the accessibility needs of kids with special needs.

Maggi said there was a gender divide in opinions: fewer women believe the government is doing enough across all special-needs services.

The poll results were also broken up by age and location, and revealed rural Albertans feel similarly to Albertans in Edmonton and Calgary when it comes to support for special-needs children.

The Mainstreet/Postmedia poll has a margin of error of +/- 1.96 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Email Annalise Klingbeil at Postmedia

Source Calgary Herald

Watch the videos in The Calgary Herald
Life with Emily: The special people enriching the lives of special-needs kids
Special school’s sensory room offers solace for the senses
The power of music for special-needs
Horses ‘soothing to the soul’ for special needs kids

Also see
Share your thoughts: Making Calgary better for children with special needs in The Calgary Herald

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