Preschool program brings ‘light’ to parents of child with disabilities


Just a couple of years ago, Angelina Shirley couldn’t imagine sending her then two-year-old daughter Sadie to preschool.

Legally blind, deaf, non-verbal and requiring the use of a wheelchair, little Sadie faced significant challenges.

So too did her parents when it came to trying to help their daughter.

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“There was no way of communication,” explained Shirley, who has three other children, including Sadie’s twin sister Ellie.

“We didn’t know what her wants were, what her needs were.”

“It was all just guessing and we were pretty much in the dark, just trying to make our way in this new world,” recalled Shirley from her home in Airdrie.

But that was before she discovered and eventually enrolled Sadie in the early education program at Getting Ready for Inclusion Today, or GRIT.

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“The GRIT program has totally changed everything for her,” said Shirley.

In the two years she’s been in school, Sadie has learned to communicate through the use of an Apple iPad and other specialized technology provided through the program.

The specialized technology has given her a voice.

“We’ve seen a huge change in her frustration and her behavior,” said developmental specialist Justine Fehr.

“Sadie was originally looking at some picture symbols that we had and only recently have we been able to transfer it to technology.”

Sadie now has options she can select from presented to her on an iPad or switch, another technological device that Sadie can activate to indicate what she wants.

“When we go places like the doctor’s office or into the school or out in the community, you know having an automated voice that says yes or no is a lot more concrete than us just interpreting a positive reaction versus a negative one,” said Fehr, who began working with Sadie this past Fall.

“You know it’s one thing to know that people are listening to you but there’s a difference between people listening and actually being heard,” she added.

Paula Carby, GRIT’s director of operations, explained the program’s focus.

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“Our goal specifically at GRIT is to get these kids ready for school or whatever educational environment we feel that, alongside with the parents and therapists, that they are going to be ready for when they’re done here at GRIT,” she said.

Designed for preschoolers 2-and-a-half- to 6-years-old, the program combines home, community and classroom based experiences.  It’s funded primarily by Alberta Education but, because of it’s attention to each students’ individual needs and challenges, the program also holds an annual gala to raise funds for additional resources.

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“We use a lot of very specialized equipment, which is very expensive and we believe in those kids,” explained GRIT’S fundraising coordinator, Annette Eckel, on the need for extra funding.

“You know, unfortunately the grants may not cover everything that we want to do for those kids so we do a lot of fundraising to help supplement these kids’ programs.

“We want to be able to find and get (the kids) to their fullest potential, to whatever that is on an individual basis,” added Carby.

For Sadie, who will soon be five, that means a future her family, at one point, never thought possible thanks to the progress she’s made since starting the program.

“She can pick when she wants her diaper changed, when she wants her bottle, when she wants to eat,” Shirley said of the strides Sadie has made.

“Where before there was no idea what she wanted. She would just be upset and now she actually has a voice.”

“It’s brought light to everything, it’s totally changed our world.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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