Dr. Noella Piquette-Tomei has filled out countless report cards over her years as an educator, but it's safe to say she's never handed out grades on a worldwide scale. That's just the opportunity she and 500-plus colleagues had recently at the Return to Salamanca: Global Inclusion Conference.
Invited as one of only a handful of Canadians, Piquette-Tomei and her brethren were in Spain to review the Salamanca Accord, an understanding signed by all members of the United Nations that pledged to further inclusive education, providing all children the opportunity to learn.
"The point of this conference was to basically look at it as a report card, 15 years later, and ask where we are," Piquette-Tomei says.
The results, while encouraging at the administrative level, are less than satisfactory at ground level, where millions of children worldwide still do not have access to education, and especially those with disabilities.
"The desire, the intent to improve education for students is there, especially at the grassroots level," she says. "There just isn't the necessary financial support from governments because there are so many things that they are trying to do simultaneously."
The topic of inclusion has been at the forefront of Piquette-Tomei's teaching career virtually since day one. The Alberta native and University of Calgary graduate taught special education for 11 years in the Calgary Catholic school system. She came to the
U of L because she was so impressed with the Faculty of Education's undergraduate program and saw a niche where she could educate students on the importance of incorporating special needs students into the mainstream.
"We don't separate individuals once they are out of this artificial school environment, so why are we doing it in schools?" she asks. "Why are we not allowing students with and without various special needs to intermingle and learn from each other and about each other? For me, personally, this conference was a real motivator to continue pushing that thesis."
She admits the Salamanca experience was eye opening and while her focus here is on inclusion strategies for special needs students, the fact that basic education is unattainable in many countries is disappointing.
"We have a lot of complaints here in Canada about accountability, about funding, about support, but the humbling part really hit me when I heard teachers, administrators and community support workers from around the world talking about all the issues they face," she says.
"In this day and age when we know that education is the only way to access everything we talk about related to freedom, it's really disturbing."
It has reinvigorated her desire to continue to push Canadian educators.
"The quality of education should be measured by the quality of education that we provide for our most vulnerable populations," she says.
GET THE FACTS
• Piquette-Tomei has been at the U of L for six years and is currently on sabbatical.
• As a result of the Salamanca conference, she has been asked to contribute to a case study book that will be used across Canada by pre-service teachers and community workers for strategies when facing various disabilities.
• A total of 56 countries were represented in Salamanca with presenters from the United Nations, UNESCO, UNICEF, Canadian Human Rights Commissioner, The World Bank, OCED and the Minister for Education: Spain.
• A total of 77 million children worldwide are currently out of school; 25 million of them have a disability.
• More than 85 per cent of students worldwide with special needs do not have access to school, health services or even basic sanitation.