Interview with Bruce Uditsky, CEO Emeritus of Inclusion Alberta

Bruce photo
To listen to the podcast, click on the link below:

Bio: Bruce Uditsky, M.Ed., is the CEO Emeritus of Inclusion Alberta and its former CEO for over 25 years. He is internationally recognized for his leadership and advocacy in social justice and inclusion for individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families. Bruce is the founder of Inclusive Post-Secondary Education and co-founder of the Rotary Employment Partnerships, both of which have been formally recognized as world-leading innovations. He has consulted and taught in many countries and is the author and co-author of books, chapters and articles on inclusion. He is the parent of two adult sons, one of whom has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and intellectual disabilities.

Bruce is a recipient of the Alberta Centennial Medal, Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the Premier’s Council on the Status of Persons with Disabilities Gary McPherson Leadership Award.

“There are far too few schools who operate on the basis of what the research and knowledge have said for decades, actually,” says Bruce–and this is perhaps one of the most frustrating parts about doing work on human rights and inclusion in schools in Canada.

In this interview, Bruce talked about the use of restraint and isolation on special education students and the need for tracking, regulation, enforcement and appropriate training in positive strategies, trauma-enforced care, de-escalation and alternatives to teacher violence. He also talked about the core biases that have prevented real change, and some amazing initiatives that counter those biases. We also talked about his work through Rotary Employment Partnerships to provide fair opportunities at competitive wages for disabled Albertans. An incredibly informative, and thought-provoking interview!

While some may think that teacher violence is the last resort, it is quite often the first resort in special education classrooms that lack transparency. Where there is no transparency, abuse can go unchecked, especially with students who may not be able to articulate what happens to them, or may not be believed if they do.

In Ontario, it is common practice for a special education teacher to keep parents out of the classroom space at all times, even for pickup and dropoff. Teachers’ unions across Canada fight against cameras-in-classrooms as well. Their representatives argue that cameras violate the privacy of students and that parent presence is a “distraction from learning”. But these arguments are a smokescreen– because decades of research show that parent and community involvement is healthy for all learners, whether in mainstream or segregated classrooms and that cameras-in-classrooms are a deterrent for violence, as well as a crucial means of documenting it.

In Ontario, each school board has its own method for “tracking” isolations, restraint and school exclusions. This unfortunately means that when human rights and inclusion advocates want to document problems and advocate for change, we are stymied by entirely different, highly relative and frankly skewed data sets. For example, in many districts in Ontario, a Board’s definition of an “exclusion” does not include several types of school exclusion that any reasonable person would define as such.

In researching A4A’s Inclusion Recommendations to the Ontario Ministry of Education, I was frustrated by this and repeatedly heard from inclusion advocates: “we need to fight for universal codes and tracking to make our case.” We see the same inconsistencies and dearth of real data when we look at uses of restraint and seclusion in group residential facilities as well. Within a bureaucracy that will not move without hard data, we’re left to rely on anecdotal information, the kinds of heartbreaking stories that advocates like Bruce hear every day. We know that it is happening every day and we know that the real numbers are obscured by the very systems that should be designed to track it.

What Inclusion Alberta did in response to this problem was remarkable: as Bruce describes in the interview, they created their own study, surveying interviewing hundreds or parents across the province to make the case for human rights accountability in schools. The end result of their work contributed to a complete ban on seclusion in Alberta schools, signed into effect by the Premier of Alberta. The ban takes full effect on September 1, 2019. Their story just goes to show that sometimes if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Thank you again, Bruce, and everyone, for all your hard work on this. Inclusion Alberta and its partners have made school a safer place for Alberta kids. Although there is more work to be done, the seclusion ban in Alberta schools has set a valuable precedent for all provinces and territories.

Inclusion Alberta
Alberta’s ban on isolation in public schools
CBC News: Autistic Boy Locked Naked in Alberta School’s Isolation Room
Toronto Life: Autistic Student Locked in a School Seclusion Room for Hours without Food or Water
A4A’s Report to the Education Ministry: Human Rights in Special Education
A4A’s Report to the Education Ministry: School Inclusion that Works
A4A’s Report to the United Nations Health Rapporteur: Human Rights in Ontario Group Homes


“It models how to relate, in a way that’s not overwhelming and respects autonomy” Interview with autistic mentor Raya Shields

Listen to the podcast at the audio link below:

Raya Shields just received her Master’s Degree from York University (Toronto) in the school of Critical Disability Studies. Her master’s thesis focuses on human rights abuses at the Judge Rotenberg Centre. She is autistic, multiply neurodivergent, and queer. For the last 12 years she has been mentoring autistic children and youth. She is currently working on a series of children’s books.

The episode
Raya and I talked mainly about her experiences as an autistic mentor. She described what the time spent with her mentees looks like: what they do, how they plan and what comes out of the experience for the youth and for their families. As she is works with the kids, she is also modeling for the parents in how to relate to their kids, approaching projects and goals with a crucial assessment question: “Is this about a critical life skill, is it a safety skill, or is this just an NT social expectation?”

Through the mentorships, kids get to try new things and experience the city in a way that is on their terms, with someone who is receptive and has a deep well of common experiences to draw upon. Raya says:

“What I hope the kids get out of it is it gives them the tools to advocate for themselves and their needs, to find pride in their autistic identity and to have greater access to their communities and feel comfortable with their way of being in the world.”

We also talked about disclosing one’s identity as autistic to clients, an issue many autistic child and youth care workers (CYCs) and teachers face. The discussion turned to Raya’s early experience working in the school system as an CYC and the problems within the school. She sums it up like this: “Super cool kid, lots of potential, utterly failed by the school system.” The school did not have accessible design, was not open to even basic accommodation and when there were difficulties, the student himself was seen as the “problem”.

Raya’s excellent recommendations for how to make classrooms accessible point to the need for schools to consult with #actuallyautistic people when developing accessible design and inclusion initiatives. Her experience in dealing with the school as a CYC is a concrete reminder of what research tells us as well: what holds administrations back from inclusion isn’t dollars, it’s attitude. Inclusion programs and accessible design work when there is an attitude of good faith from administration–a willingness to learn and change. In future episodes, we will be looking at successful inclusion programs, how they got there and why they work!

Autistic mentorship
We need more mentorship like Raya’s that brings autistic kids together around shared interests and helps them through life transitions as kids, tweens, teens and young adults. Raya mentors my son and it such a wonderful, relaxing experience when she rings our doorbell and they go off on an adventure on their own or with other autistic kids. I always know that he is in an emotional space where he can be authentically himself without stigma.

Many programs and classes for autistic youth are not designed to allow them to relate to one another, but rather to teach them so-called “social skills.” Those classes, through a heavily-mediated, hand-over-hand style, end up feeling awkward and inauthentic, and stymie friendship efforts because the kids are not allowed to connect on their own terms. Many “meetups” led by autism agencies even have behaviour performance charts at the front of the room, ranking the children’s “behaviour” instead of promoting true community and connection.

Autistic mentoring programs and interest groups push back against this approach and show clearly that autistic kids, no matter their age, should not have to wait until adulthood to find their community. It is here. The most helpful thing our policymakers could do is to stop prioritizing “clinical” social groups for autistic kids and instead support getting them out into the real world with #actuallyautistic mentors!

I hope you enjoy this podcast as much as I did. Lots of great ideas and inspiration as we move towards inclusion in our society.