Researcher is seeking to make classrooms more inclusive

A St. Clair College professor has landed two grants to test a strategy he believes could make classrooms more inclusive for those with disabilities.

John Freer, co-ordinator of the College’s Educational Support program, is receiving a $15,000 Igniting Discovery grant from the local WE-SPARK Health Institute. The seed money helped him land another $11,000 in funding from the Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities to cover equipment costs for his project.

The grants are making it possible for him to build on research he began as a doctoral student at the University of Windsor.

“Historically, people with disabilities have been excluded from schools and classes,” Freer said. “Now we see more and more children with disabilities being educated alongside their peers, which is fantastic. But my concern is we lack the social inclusivity. So, even though the students are there, they’re not necessarily being invited to the birthday parties. They’re not necessarily getting to join in the games at recess.”

Freer’s research tests targeting children’s affect (emotions), cognition (beliefs) and behaviour to make them more inclusive of those with disabilities of all kinds.

It grew from his childhood experience. Freer gave a speech in grade school about epilepsy, a condition with which he had been diagnosed. He wanted his classmates to understand it didn’t change who he was and to dispel myths they may have heard.

“I actually found it had the opposite effect,” he said. He was shunned and left out more often once his classmates knew he had epilepsy.

Where did these attitudes come from and could they be changed? he wondered. The question became the topic of his doctoral dissertation, which he defended in 2020.

For his doctoral research he surveyed two classes of Grade 4 students at a Windsor area school to gauge their attitudes about disability. One class of 17 students made up the control group and saw no change in their curriculum.

Freer walked the other class of 21 students through a 12-lesson intervention aimed at their emotions, beliefs and behaviour. The lessons included meeting sledge hockey players who spoke to them about the game, an adaption of hockey for those with physical disabilities. The students were given sledge hockey sleds with wheels and taught how to play the game in the school gym by the para-athletes. Then the students played a game, coached and refereed by the athletes.

It helped the children see the sledge hockey players primarily as athletes, Freer said.

When he surveyed the children at the end of the study, the students who received the intervention showed a significant shift in their beliefs about disabilities.

Freer now wants to replicate his study on a larger scale to confirm the results.

“I think we need to break down the stigma around disability,” he said. “If this intervention can help students to think more inclusively about disability, my hope is it will affect the way they act with their peers and will ultimately make a more inclusive school.”

Freer said he is in discussions with Windsor area school boards about participating.

His work is an example of research at the College connecting with the community, said Peter Wawrow, St. Clair’s Director of Applied Research and Development.

More of that is happening thanks to the WE-SPARK Health Institute — a research partnership between St. Clair College, the University of Windsor, Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare and Windsor Regional Hospital, he said.

“It’s been excellent,” Wawrow said of the institute that launched in March 2020. “Without it we wouldn’t have had any of these opportunities.”