A Surrey teacher says it’s a “huge honour” to be recognized for her accessibility advocacy work.
Renuka Senaratne, a teacher at Hillcrest Elementary, was recently chosen as one of the 2019 Educator Difference Makers of the Year through the Rick Hansen Foundation, according to a release from the Surrey School District.
She received the award for her “many inclusive initiatives, such as improving school accessibility, inviting Rick Hansen Foundation ambassadors to her school, speaking openly about her own disability and abilities with her students, raising awareness about inclusive opportunities and sharing information about adaptive sports.”
“It was pretty exciting, especially because he’s somebody I admire, as well,” said Senaratne, who walks with crutches and sometimes uses a wheelchair.
Senaratne said a lot of her role as a teacher is “to raise awareness about disabilities – different kinds (of disabilities) – and so creating opportunities that were supporting students and that were more inclusive.”
For the foundation award, Senaratne was nominated by Janice Churchill principal Daljeet Rama. Senaratne worked at the elementary school for 18 years.
“From the first day I met her, using her crutches and wheelchair, she was able to demonstrate her strength of character and express her ideas to make our school a better place,” Rama said in her nomination. “By expressing her opinions and bringing her perspectives, she assisted with changes around our school that will help the lives of other students in wheelchairs for years to come.”
At Janice Churchill, Rama said that Senaratne’s advocacy work led to the school’s front parking lot being paved instead of loose rock and the hallways are more accessible, allowing for two wheelchairs to pass in the halls.
During her time at Janice Churchill, Senaratne said she took a whole class to play sledge hockey.
“I’ve played sledge hockey, but they didn’t have any knowledge about what sledge hockey was,” she said, adding that it was arranged with Surrey Parks and Recreation and Sportability BC.
“I did it two different years, but the first time I also took a child that was in our school, but wasn’t even in my class, Senaratne said. “I invited this student so that he could see what sledge hockey was like and to have a chance to try it out. I hoped to give him this opportunity to show that playing hockey might be possible for him.”
In her last year at Janice Churchill, Senaratne said, there was a student, who used a power chair, and loved watching other kids play soccer.
“In his power chair, he would be outside following the kids as they were playing soccer, going up and down the field,” said Senaratne, adding that she found out about power soccer and working with EAs to get bumpers for the student’s wheelchair so he could play soccer. “The other kids were so excited to play soccer with him.”
Rama said Senaratne bridged a “valuable connection” with the Rick Hansen Foundation that continues at Janice Churchill today. “Renuka Senaratne brought meaningful experiences to our school and others’ lives on a daily basis,” Rama added. “She teaches and shows on a daily basis how to turn impossible to possible.”
For Senaratne, she said her motivation comes partly from her own experiences and also from what she observes.
“When we focus on our abilities and share stories of struggles or success with students they learn that all of us can set goals, work toward those goals and achieve them,” Senaratne said. “It has also helped encourage empathy in the classroom.”
When Senaratne was in Grade 10, Rick Hansen was just beginning his Man in Motion world tour. She said her teacher asked if anyone wanted to help fundraise and Senaratne got on board. “We didn’t know who he was or what he would become,” she said. “It was so exciting and so amazing to learn about the obstacles he had overcome.”
A year later, Senaratne said she and her classmates went to BC Place to see Hansen finish his tour.
Several years later, while attending UBC, Senaratne said she was faced with her own health crisis and found herself in a wheelchair and learning about disability, access and inclusion struggles. She was also uncertain how permanent her health crisis might be.
The Disability Resource Centre where Senaratne went for support also shared an office with Hansen’s foundation at the time.
“At one point, Rick Hansen was in the office and I had a chance to meet with him and talk to him,” Senaratne said. “It gave me that extra boost of encouragement I needed.”
In 2011, when Hansen began his 25th anniversary Man in Motion tour, Senaratne was working at Janice Churchill Elementary. She was one of thousands of medal bearers chosen to recreate his original cross-country trek, completing a portion of the tour on 152nd Street and meeting Hansen once again.