How-to Welcome disabled families back to school: 3 lessons on Accessibility from a mom with a spinal cord injury

Back to School for a young boy.

Anxiety and back to school for a mom with a spinal cord injury

We all either hate or love the September return back to school time.

Very few of us feel indifferent about it anyways.


This time of year means shopping for school supplies.

Preparing boxes and packing for anyone studying away from home.

For students, there is the anticipation and trepidation associated with new friends, new teachers, new classes.

For parents, there is the stress of getting everything organized – as if we could really all be that prepared! And these changes all come with a little, or a lot, anxiety.

An anxiety that is often linked to excitement and worry – that dissipates once we start the school year and have met the teachers.

Every year: the same routine and feelings.

And although we all feel that, for disabled parents, there are added stressors.


Parent-Teacher Welcome Meeting

Every year, on the second week, my son’s school organize a meeting where the principal sets the tone for the year and where we, as parents, get to meet every teacher and hear about their teaching style and the special projects our kids will be asked to do.

It is a long meeting, at times boringly so, but so important to attend as it tells us how we, as parents, can best accompany our children in this new school year. What to watch for. Who to contact for support.

And this meeting is best done in person.

And this is where it becomes tricky for a person who uses a wheelchair.


Accessibility happens only via Advocacy

Thomas has been in the same school since kindergarten nine years ago.

So it is safe to say that I know the school well.

In reality, I only know the parts of the school that are accessible to me. The other parts – I have never seen in my life. And since there are no cell phones allowed or taking pictures in the school, I have never even seen those parts on photos.

And despite being an ‘old timer’ in his school, parent-teacher welcoming meeting always brings on additional anxiety and preparation.

Every year (yes, despite them knowing there is a mom in a wheelchair for the past 9 years), I had to contact the principal’s office and ask the same questions:

  • Can I have permission to park in the staff parking lot? The school being on a very steep hill, I could not access the school if my car wasn’t close by or on the flat-er part.
  • Can I enter the school through the school yard as this is the only ‘no stairs’ entrance and can I have access to the elevator (in one building, I had to ask for a key and be accompanied)?
  • Will the classroom be accessible to me via that elevator?

And every year, I hope there will be a staff nearby that can open the gates so that I can leave the school once the meeting is over.


Do you know if your child’s school is accessible?

This year, we even had extra challenges as my son and I have decided to go see what other schools offer. It has become clear that Thomas has a particular interest in Physics, Technology and Robotics. His current school… not so much!

I had never thought of what it would be to go to open houses.

I had missed when Thomas was little as none of the primary schools in our neighborhoods were accessible to my wheels. I had to ask my mom to go for me and take ‘illegally’ pictures and videos of the buildings and classrooms to show me.

My son’s current school was the only that would be accessible to my wheels (with some requests).

This was 9 years ago. Surely in a decade, schools would think more about accessibility (?) Especially those schools that teach about leadership, diversity, inclusivity, community involvement, compassion and innovation.


Open Houses: Opportunities for schools to check their accessibility standards.

Visiting new schools usually means registering for a meeting or… showing up on the day school opens its doors for potential new students and their parents to visit and compare.

But when you are in a wheelchair, it also means you need to call ahead to make sure you can actually enter the school grounds and travel through buildings.

For Thomas and I to go, I thus needed to email or call ahead and ask:

  • Is there an accessible reserved parking?
  • Are there elevators and how would I access them?
  • Can I get to all the floors and classrooms (especially the science and technology labs as those are most important to Thomas)?
  • Who can I contact if I need support on the day of the open house?


How-to accommodate for disabled parents and disabled families.

Both schools we visited have shown openness and were welcoming to both my son and I. None acted surprised that I was disabled. And none made me feel as if that would be a problem for them if my son were to attend.

They replied quickly, providing answers to all of my questions. They had solutions and presented them to me in a very cordial manner. Making someone available if I needed on the day of – but only if I needed. After all, when accommodations are provided, I am quite capable on my own – like any other parent.

The visits weren’t perfect. Each person accompanying us had to mentally decide which elevator, or floor to go to, in order to access all of the rooms we needed to see. This meant that despite me calling ahead, they hadn’t really thought of what welcoming a disabled parent meant.

But at least, neither said “sorry we can’t accommodate” or “sorry our school isn’t accessible”, which was my fear. I was able get in and ask the questions I needed to ask.


To properly Welcome all families, including Disabled Parents and their children, here are 3 lessons (and a bonus one) school should follow:

  • Identify and reserve enough accessible parking spaces that are larger to allow someone in a wheelchair to get in and out of their car. These spaces need to be closer to the doors for safety reasons;
  • Plan for potential routes they can use to visit the school – maybe have an accessible-route map or dedicate one person to accompany them – someone who would have all the appropriate keys and codes to elevators and lifts, if needed;
  • Educate students and staff on diversity and how to connect and be welcoming – For example, what language to use and not use, do we ask about their disability being permanent or temporary (yes… this happened on one of the visit); how to offer help and when (i.e. when there is a steep slope, do we ask or do we push?);
  • Bonus points for schools that have clearly marked Accessible toilets in their buildings and an auditorium with reserved seating for wheelchair users that are not too close, yet close enough.

Check out more on Five traits of a Meaningful Accessible Building from the Rick Hansen Foundation.

And stay informed on the Accessibility Standards Canada is currently working on to make Canada Barrier-Free.