As a teacher, I knew that while some students learn faster than others, all students learn best through experiencing...by doing...using as many of their five senses as possible. Book learning is good, but doing is better!
I finally made a very pivotal decision that was to become my beacon of guidance, the central pillar of my parenting style. I resolved to quit teaching and instead, focus all my energy and attention to providing my children with as many hands-on learning experiences as I could possibly cram into their lives. I would have to live with the cards that were dealt me, but I became utterly determined to stack the deck against Nature by loading the dice in favour of Nurture. That decision gave me enormous strength and determination, guiding all our future plans and road trips.
As we stumbled down the winding ADVOCACY road, we found ourselves doing things we previously never dreamed of and certainly were never a part of our original road trip. In 1982, Murray and I formed the first Down syndrome parent support group in Ontario. The only way to learn more about DS was to learn from the experiences of other parents. The only way to discharge our emotional burdens was to lean on others who really understood our frustrations, hopes and fears. Years later we were also the founding parents of the Ontario Down Syndrome Association, which was an attempt to help organize the strength of 23 other provincial parent groups into a more politically active group advocating for Down syndrome. In 1988 we were founding members of the new Canadian Down Syndrome Society with Murray serving as their Chairman for many years.
I organized the very first conference on Down syndrome in Canada, designing it after the three American conferences we had attended. I brought in medical specialists from the U.S. and Canada to do seminars and workshops for over 350 parents and professionals. I chose McMaster University hospital to host the venue because not only did it lend an air of respectability and professionalism to the event, but I was also nine months pregnant with our third child. She was due the week of the conference and I rationalized that if all the stress of 10 months of planning were to bring on an early baby, I could just walk upstairs to the neonatal unit and deliver!
We fought bitterly and unrelentingly against two school boards to have Neil fully integrated throughout his entire schooling career. When the head of Special Education at the high school publicly berated me with "Your dream of having your son in a regular classroom is just a fantasy", it still hurt even though we were hardened veterans to this attitude. This necessitated Murray doing many years of night courses to get new qualifications in special education, co-operative education and guidance qualifications because the only way to really make sure Neil got a useful education was to make changes from within the system itself.
We showed many, many fearful teachers and administrators that integration was a bonus to all students involved, if it was structured properly and given a chance. The education advocacy road was an especially difficult one to travel down. It was 17 years too long, very lonely, and highly stressful, always going steeply uphill and constantly littered with formidable road blocks.
Photo:Neil MacDonald and his father, Murray MacDonald, standing in front of Neil's photograph, which was exhibited at the Varley Gallery (2009 Ideal-Way Art Show). Neil was 2nd place in the People's Choice Awards.