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April 1, 2004

'It could have been settled in one day'

From: Calgary Herald, Canada - Apr 1, 2004

Valerie Fortney
Calgary Herald

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Terry Shawchuk can recall the moment like it happened yesterday.

Waiting in a corridor of the former Calgary General Hospital, he paced nervously while his wife Betty underwent an emergency caesarean.

After what seemed an interminable length of time, the doctor finally emerged from the operating room to give him the news.

"He told me, 'You have a baby boy, but he's a mongoloid,' " says the now 51-year-old father of two.

"I didn't even know what mongoloid meant," he says of his first child, Adam. But when he realized his new baby had Down syndrome, "I was absolutely devastated."

Sixteen years later, Shawchuk is once again feeling devastated. But this time, it's not about his son. It's about what some people did to him.

On March 1, while attending his special education class at St. Helena Junior High in the city's northwest, Adam was disciplined for what a teacher's aide called "unco-operative behaviour." He was made to stay in a makeshift box, two trifolds pulled together, that towered over his elfin four-foot-seven frame.

When Betty arrived at the school, she couldn't see her son anywhere in the classroom. But Adam -- who is also profoundly deaf -- could see her, thanks to a small crack in the adjoined partitions left by the aide.

"Mommy," he cried out to his shocked mother.

On Wednesday, the soft-spoken Shawchuks opened their Ranchlands home to the media, in an effort to, as Betty says, "stand up for our son's right to be treated with dignity and respect."

Sitting at their western-style dining room table with a bay window that overlooks their backyard, the diminutive couple can hardly contain their sorrowful outrage over their son's treatment. But they're clearly not the types to punch walls or raise their voices. Tears glisten in Betty's crystal blue eyes and, at times, she can barely speak. Terry keeps his composure for most of our conversation, but he covers his tearing eyes as he says, "We believe that some day, somehow . . . these people are going to walk into a room and say sorry to our son."

Sorry. It seems so basic. Yet the Shawchuks haven't had much success in eliciting the word from those directly responsible. Instead, their desire for an apology drew them into a web from which they still can't untangle themselves. Dozens of phone calls back and forth, letters to and from the school's principal and a handful of formal, face-to-face meetings -- and still not the magical word that would satisfy the family and make the whole ugly scene evaporate.

An apology from the school's principal came first. Then an apology from Adam's teacher, who wasn't present on the day he was enclosed in cardboard. It wasn't enough: On March 15, they pulled Adam out of school.

Then, a final offer that fell far short of their deserved expectation of justice.

"The principal called and told us that the people responsible would apologize to Adam," says Terry. "We thought, 'Outstanding.'

"Then, he said there was just one catch: Betty and I would not be allowed to be there."

(School representatives would not comment on the incident directly.)

Wringing her hands together, Betty can't stop shaking her head as Terry recounts their last conversation with a representative from the school.

"Adam would be terrified to go in that room alone," says Betty, her still-strong accent revealing her Newfoundland roots despite three decades in the West. "He cannot come out of that room and say, 'Dad, they apologized. Mom, they meant it.'

"This is crazy, just crazy."

As Betty wipes her eyes, a childlike squeal of "Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo," emanates from an upstairs bedroom.

She breaks into a quiet laugh.

"He's watching TV," she says, her head pointing up the stairs where framed baby photos of Adam and his younger brother, Matthew, 11, adorn the wall. In the photograph of Adam, the white-haired, chubby baby is wearing a red sailor suit and sporting a wide, toothless grin.

Terry, who says he was told at one point by the school's principal that "it's a bit of a delicate union issue," admits he has received "a heartfelt apology . . . but from the wrong person."

He still can't understand why things have gone this far, to the point where he's now spending a sunny day at home rather than at his job as a salesman in the oilpatch, reciting his tale before reporters and a parade of television camera crews.

"The amount of bureaucracy we have had to go through over this," he says, "and to think it all could have been settled in one day.

"I only have one thing to say to them now. Shame on you."

At that moment, Adam bounds down the stairs and stretches out his small hand in greeting. "Hello," he says as he puts before us a photograph from his Special Olympics floor hockey team. "He competed in his first provincials, and got a gold, silver and a bronze in track and field," says his beaming father, who spends his off-time coaching Special Olympics.

"Adam's not a problem kid," says Betty as she gives her blond-haired boy a quick hug before posing for photographs. "He doesn't throw fits, but he can be a bit noisy. He likes to bark, but we're working on it with him."

What would Adam had done that day, I ask Terry, if he had had to go to the bathroom? "He would have just kept signing, 'toilet, toilet,' " says Terry as he shakes his head.

"My mom raised 12 kids, and I'm sure she wanted to pull out her hair at times," says Betty. "But she never put any of us in a box.

"My son is guilty of only two things: for being Down syndrome, and for being deaf."

As the photographer snaps away at the trio, Adam is clearly enjoying the attention.

He beams a big smile for the camera as his mother and father gaze at him with the adoration of loving, proud parents.

They've all come a long way since that day 16 years ago. But as their latest ordeal has taught them, they still have much to overcome.

© The Calgary Herald 2004