Classrooms full of H’art

Students with intellectual disabilities from the H’art School bring enthusiasm and a love of learning to Queen’s

H’art School prep program student Daniel Pinsonneault recieved 17 out of 20 during the winter semester on his history of music exam at Queen’s.
H’art School prep program student Daniel Pinsonneault recieved 17 out of 20 during the winter semester on his history of music exam at Queen’s.

A local charity’s partnership with Queen’s is providing a university experience for individuals with intellectual disabilities. This year, over 20 students from H’art School of Smiles’ prep program will begin their five years of lectures, learning and university life.

H’art School founder Katherine Porter said prep students go into classrooms and learn alongFside the rest of the other Queen’s students. But because they’re taking courses towards a Certificate of Learning rather than a degree, professors make accommodations for tests, assignments and notes.

“In a music history class, Daniel [Pinsonneault] chose to write the exam and it was modified by a student volunteer and he got 17 out of 20,” Porter said. “They’re engaged … That’s the point.”

H’art prep students are a part of the Inclusive Post Secondary Education (IPSE) program—a Canada-wide initiative to help integrate people with intellectual disabilities into society through education. So far, 10 .Queen’s instructors have volunteered spaces in their classrooms for H’art prep’s IPSE students and Porter said she is expecting five more.

Being on campus as part of H’art prep encourages the heightening of social awareness through contributing to class discussions, Porter said.

“It’s wonderful because [my students now have more] confidence and ability to navigate through our social community,” she said, adding that after graduation, she hopes her students will be able to find placements in their field.

“In Alberta, they’ve been running an inclusivity program in four universities and 17 colleges for over 20 years and after an average of four to five years on campus, 90 per cent of them find work in the area of their study,” she said.

Porter said it’s still too early to know what kind of success rate H’art School graduates will meet in the workplace.

“We’ve only been operating for three years,” she said adding that students spend five years on campus and since the pilot for the program started in 2007, no one has yet graduated.

Alana Young took part in the IPSE program during the 2010 winter term.

“I took drama,” she said “It was fun because I got to know more people on main campus and more students in class.”

She said her class put on a performance for second grade students at a nearby elementary school.

“I was supposed to take part in the play but I was away a lot in March,” she said, adding that this turned out to be a positive in the end.

“I got to sit out and watched my group act out a play.”

Young said this year she will be taking either a computer course or an art course.

“I’m hoping art,” she said.

Porter said the program Young knows came to fruition in June 2009.

“We got the memorandum of understanding so that officially is when we had the relationship with Queen’s established,” she said, adding that this was the culmination of a long journey.

The H’art School of Smiles was founded in 1998 with the mandate of supplementing typical support systems with a focus on fine arts, not available to those with an intellectual or developmental disabilities at the time.

“What we were doing was offering a third option instead of employment or day programs,” Porter said, “There was nobody with the intention of helping the students actually learn something [or to] expand their knowledge.”

Porter said she started the school because she was roused by how her son was coping with down syndrome.

“He’d draw pictures and I’d communicate with pictures and colour,” Porter said, “It was just an evolution ... I established H’art through his inspiration.

“I see the value of visual imagery and music and theatre,” Porter said, “All of those components of the fine arts help those with disabilities [and helps] a variety of them have the ability to communicate in some way.”

When the H’art Studio program started there was a mix of high and low needs students, Porter says. Eventually, some of the students outgrew the studio program, having learned everything that they could. They wanted a program that would prepare them for post-secondary options so, in 2005, the H’Art prep program was born.

This caught the attention of Dr. Rosemary Lysaght from the Queen’s University School of Rehabilitation Therapy.

“[She] had [master’s] students start the first [kind of] research on the value of inclusive post-secondary education,” Porter said, adding that Masters of Education student, James Wintle, wrote his thesis about what was being done in relation to inclusive post-secondary education, based on H’art’s methods.

After the memorandum was signed with the University in 2009, H’art School received a grant from Imperial Oil through the Queen’s Community Outreach Centre, an organization working with the University to students become engaged with each other and the community around them.

Porter said she plans to use the money to hire a post-graduate student to help facilitate IPSE students on the Queen’s campus and create a more tangible presence.

“Our goal is to have 50 [students] on campus every five years,” Porter said.

This isn’t H’art prep program’s only avenue for expansion though.

Porter said H’art is working with 10 volunteers from the Queen’s School of Business to provide more employment opportunities for its students

“The goal is to come up with a course proposal that would ask individuals in the School of Business … to create entrepreneurial programs that are social service oriented,” she said. “Anything that’s front line and social, not shovelling driveways or folding laundry.”

She said jobs could include taking care of plants at a flower shop or making sandwiches for the elderly with Meals on Wheels.

“Even though they may not get the cream jobs they need to be visible and included,” Porter said.

While at Queen’s Porter said it’s important that students are included both inside and outside of the classroom.

To ensure this, the student-run Social Transition Education Program (STEP) pairs IPSE students with Queen’s students. Porter said the Queen’s students expose IPSE students to campus life.

“On campus it’s their own support group for students after class. It keeps my students on campus doing what other students do,” she said. “Not one of my students has found any discrimination or abuse or has any problems but [only] welcome or support.” Anastasia Tsyben, Artsci ’11, is the president of the Queen’s chapter of STEP.

“We match up Queen’s students with these incoming students with developmental disabilities based on their profiles and interests,” she said. “Their role is to show the campus to the students.”

She said Queen’s student volunteers meet up with the H’art students on a weekly basis.

“They [go]for coffee or to go to the gym and they become friends. It’s a great way for them to feel at home,” she said. “We also organize monthly social events for all the volunteers and students and we throw a party or see a movie.”

While this year’s team of volunteers has yet to be hired, Tsyben said she hopes to expand the program from last year.

Jennifer Moore, Con-Ed ’11, is this year’s vice-president and one of last year’s 15 Queen’s volunteers.

She said she really enjoyed working with the students from H’art School.

“All of the students have a lot of energy and a real desire to learn all that they can,” she said, adding that she and her buddy went to the QP, cheered on the Gaels at football games and went to see shows.

The hardest part was finding time, she said.

“A lot of the students are really busy and involved with other things,” she said. “It was challenging to try and schedule times or even to coordinate with your buddy because everyone had other commitments.”

Moore said that even though the scheduling was hard, the students made it worth her while.

“I find that [Queen’s has] a lot of full time students on campus. People often complain about school and they don’t recognize the privilege that they have,” she said. “These [IPSE] students are so excited and passionate about the courses they’re taking. It’s so refreshing to talk to people who are interested in what they are doing. It kind of brightens my experience every time we hang out.”

—With files from Rachel Kuper

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