For most students at Blewett Elementary, the trip from the school’s entrance to its field takes only a few seconds at kid speed.
For Emerson Potter, that short distance is almost not worth the effort.
To join his classmates for a gym class on the field, the eight-year-old Grade 3 student has to use his power wheelchair and leave the school grounds, travel up an adjacent road and then have a gate unlocked.
“It’s just hard, and I don’t feel very good about it sometimes,” he says.
Emerson was born with cerebral palsy, which affects motor control and posture. He can walk without assistance, but fatigues without his wheelchair.
Last winter, frustrated by his difficulty getting around the school grounds, Emerson made a case for change in a letter to School District 8. He had a little help, but Emerson’s parents Lindsay Thompson and Keith Potter stress the letter was their son’s initiative.
“We’re very proud of him because this is a big deal for him to talk about his disability,” says Thompson.
“Even though he was born with cerebral palsy he struggles with it and with talking about it. I think this is giving him a big voice and confidence to talk for himself, and to realize he’s going to be helping other people is also very good.”
In February, Emerson met with director of operations Bruce MacLean and a plan was formed — a new path to the field would be built close to entrance, and access would also be improved to the tennis courts on the other side of the building.
“It’s going to be pretty awesome,” says Emerson.
Balfour landscaping company Don Renzie Holdings has committed to offering the district a discounted equipment rental rate and assistance, which Blewett principal Tim Mushumanski said came after he heard Emerson’s story.
MacLean said the work will begin Thursday, May 27 and be completed by the following Monday so Emerson can make use of it before the school year ends.
Mushumanski said he didn’t think most eight-year-olds would know how to advocate for themselves. Emerson, he added, took charge from the beginning.
“He was very convinced, very forthright, well-planned out, a forceful young man,” said Mushumanski. “So I think a career in politics, a career in public speaking, motivation, those kinds of things are perfect for him.”
Still, Mushumanski concedes a student shouldn’t have had to make the case for accessibility work that should have already been done at the 59-year-old school.
MacLean said new schools are built with features such as automatic doors and easily accessed washrooms, but older schools such as Blewett weren’t designed for students with mobility difficulties. As students enter schools, he said, work is done to accommodate their needs.
“The mindset has changed,” says MacLean. “So we do focus on the support of individual students.”
He added Blewett had already previously renovated a washroom for Emerson, who entered the school in kindergarten.
Emerson, meanwhile, is looking forward to getting around the school a little easier. Future students with wheelchairs, he says, will appreciate the changes too.
“I think they’ll be pretty happy.”
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