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Abbotsford student's speech about accessibility challenges at her school censored by administrators


As part of her Grade 12 art activism class, Lexis De Meyer was tasked with investigating accessibility challenges faced by people with disabilities in her community of Abbotsford.

Just days after her presenting her report, she broke her ankle playing rugby. She was on crutches, and she learned her own school, Robert Bateman Secondary, is not easy to navigate for students with physical disabilities.

“Our school doesn’t have any functioning automatic doors. They are pull doors and very heavy to open, and there is also a latch you have to push and pull. I didn’t have hands to open the door at all, so I needed a hero to get in,” said De Meyer, who also found there were a limited number of elevator keys for the three-storey school, and she didn’t always get one.

“My teacher was like, 'Why don’t you write a letter to the principal about this?' Because nobody did that as a part of their project. And I said, 'Absolutely, I will,'” said De Meyer.

She was invited to meet with the principal, who De Meyer says told her the school was up to code.

“I felt super dismissed, and he didn’t really care about the things I raised,” De Meyer said.

It was then that she decided the theme for the painting that would serve as her final project for the class. It depicts a student in a wheelchair at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at her classroom, which she can’t get to. Words on the stairs read: "There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs."

In her written artist statement that accompanied the painting, she wrote about her own experiences with accessibility challenges while using crutches at her school.

“They say the school district runs on student voice and agency, and I said, 'I hope they hear my voice and help fix the problems at Bateman so everybody can get the education they deserve,'” said De Meyer.

But just hours before she was set to present her painting and artist statement, her teacher pulled her aside.

“(She) tells me she had to change my artist statement, or the administration wouldn’t let her hand out the books that contained the rest of everybody’s artist statements,” De Meyer recounted.

In the book, her original statement had been covered by a sticker with a new statement on it, partly written by the teacher, and it removed any references to De Meyer’s issues getting around at school.

“They gave me something that was almost kind of the opposite of what actually happened and what I wrote. That really bothered me because it wasn’t even my words at that point,” said De Meyer.

She was also told to remove any references to accessibility shortfalls at Robert Bateman Secondary in the speech she was set to give at the art show, “because they couldn’t include anything that was demeaning or bad-mouthing or making anything that made the school look bad,” said De Meyer.

Outraged that her words had been censored, the 17-year-old spoke to a reporter with the Fraser Valley Current.

“My mom's phone was going off non-stop with people texting her and leaving comments on Facebook, just showing their support. It felt really good, because I remember feeling on that Saturday so alone and so silenced,” said De Meyer.

On Friday, the Abbotsford School District issued a news release. In it, Superintendent Sean Nosek said: “We are investigating the circumstances surrounding the censorship of Ms. De Meyer’s speech. We understand that this action may have silenced an important student voice and caused frustration.”

"We are reviewing our approach to handling student speeches and written statements at public events," he continued. "We acknowledge that altering Ms. De Meyer’s speech may have compromised out commitment to open dialogue.”

In the release, Shirley Wilson, chair of the Abbotsford School Board said: “We are addressing the concerns raised by Ms. De Meyer’s speech about accessibility challenges within her school. We recognize these issues may have hindered students’ ability to navigate the school comfortably.”

When asked what she hopes the school and school district have learned from this episode, De Meyer said: “Not to silence their students’ voices. And when problems are raised, just because there is an issue with your school, that doesn’t mean you have to cover it up and hide it.”

De Meyer graduated from high school on Monday. After what happened in her final weeks, she is even more sure of what she wants to pursue in the future. Lexis wants to be a lawyer. Top Stories

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