Heather-Ann Mesquite, above, created the Community Association for Student Support.  (Courtesy Heather-Ann Mesquite)

Heather-Ann Mesquite, above, created the Community Association for Student Support. (Courtesy Heather-Ann Mesquite)

How does a teaching assistant (TA) or educational assistant (EA) tell an elementary school student with a disability who she’s worked with one-on-one for months that she can no longer work with them?

That’s the “heartbreaking” situation Ryerson disability studies student Heather-Ann Mesquita said she has faced multiple times throughout her 10 years working as an elementary school TA. And she’s not the only one. Throughout her time at Ryerson, Mesquita said she has met many other TAs and EAs in her disability studies program who are frustrated that the students they teach are not receiving the accommodations they need.

“It is so incredibly frustrating, heartbreaking, angering and isolating when we are faced with barriers to accessing the resources and devices [students] need for their learning,” Mesquita wrote in a post on the disability studies student blog last September. “…though I had heard similar stories from countless others in my field, I still felt alone, like I was fighting for my students’ rights and needs on my own.”

That’s why Mesquita created the Community Association for Student Support (CASS) for her final-year disability studies thesis project. The organization brings together TAs and EAs who work with elementary and high school students with disabilities – as well as the students themselves and their parents – to fight the systemic barriers that these students face. These barriers can include segregating students with disabilities from their peers, the hoops that students have to jump through in order to access an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and even bullying. But these things won’t change until the system itself views disability in a new light, said Mesquita.

“Once we start changing attitudes (about disability and accessibility) at the school board level, we’ll start seeing other students be more welcoming to students with disabilities,” she said.

While the organization is still in its early stages, Mesquita said that their focus now is creating a mandate, building a website and designing a logo.  Its 15 members (many of whom are Ryerson students) are passionate about using what they’ve learned in disability studies courses to improve the education system for students with disabilities.

Mesquita first created CASS last winter as an assignment for one of her disability studies courses..

“We looked at the leadership involved in pushing movements forward (in the course) and I think that’s when the realization hit me, ‘wait a second, we could actually do something here.’ I noticed there were a lot of us TAs and EAs in the program and we shared very similar stories of our experiences and frustrations,” Mesquita said.

After presenting the assignment to her peers, she asked who would want to join this group.

The entire class raised their hands.

Thus, one year later, CASS has become a reality. And while the group’s main goal for now is to gain more members, they’ve discussed projects including organizing professional development days for educators, talks for students about disability acceptance and curriculum changes.

“Everyone deserves an equal education, but that’s not happening – at least not for students who have disabilities,” said Thaihu Hunte, a CASS member, disability studies student and elementary school EA.

“EAs often see that something needs to be done in order to give the student a semblance of an education,” Hunte said. “The EA sees that the student isn’t being treated equally and sees the discrimination in the school system, in the classroom, in the student body. They see that more than the teacher does.”

Many of Cass’s members suggested introducing the disability studies theory they’ve learned at Ryerson to school boards – particularly the use of a “social model” approach towards disability rather than the “medical model” approach that is more often used.

“The social model says: ‘we don’t need to fix disability, we need society to change in order to understand and accommodate people with disabilities,’” Hunte said. “The medical model is: ‘we need to fix you so that you’re like other people.’ It’s not accepting of the disability.”

Mesquita has been invited to the Canadian Disability Studies Association conference in May 2016 to share her group’s work.

“I’m often going to administration and advocating for the students in these classrooms, but what more can I do?” Hunte said. “ If we can make this work, this is what I can do to help the students in the classroom.”

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