School officials censored an ‘art activism’ student’s speech about accessibility barriers

School officials censored an ‘art activism’ student’s speech about accessibility barriers

School officials censored an ‘art activism’ student’s speech about accessibility barriers

Lexis De Meyer’s final project was a painting inspired by her own challenges navigating her school after she broke her ankle. But school officials forbid her from mentioning her experience in a speech and her artistic statement. 📷 Submitted

An Abbotsford high school principal censored a student’s speech at a public event because she planned to mention accessibility challenges she encountered at her own school.

Earlier this month, Lexis De Meyer stood in front of a crowd at Robert Bateman Secondary School and welcomed visitors to an exhibition of student art pieces focused around the theme of inclusion and accessibility.

But the speech heard by visitors—including school officials, a local reporter, and Abbotsford’s mayor—was not the one De Meyer had wanted to give.

Instead, it had been re-written by administrators to omit accessibility barriers De Meyer found at her own school and her attempts to call for change.

Officials also censored an artistic statement De Meyer had produced to accompany her painting, which was inspired by the challenges she encountered after she broke her ankle in a rugby game earlier in the year. The original statement closed with a clear—but relatively gentle—call to action.

De Meyer wrote: “I hope the school district hears my voice and supports students in their education by making it possible to independently enter the building, attend class and go to the classroom.”

But administrators told De Meyer’s teacher that a booklet containing the entire class’s artistic statements wouldn’t be distributed unless De Meyer’s statement was scrubbed of any mention of Robert Bateman and her own personal experience.

‘Activism’

Each year, students in Robert Bateman’s art activism course tackle a specific topic. They learn and research a societal issue, hear from advocates and people with first-hand experience, investigate their world, then create an artwork based on their findings. Previous classes tackled topics like body image stereotypes and women’s issues.

De Meyer had taken the course in Grade 11, and liked it enough to re-enroll in her senior year. She loved her teacher, who she had first met in elementary school, and she liked learning and researching about the subject at hand. (De Meyer has enrolled in the University of the Fraser Valley and hopes to eventually be a lawyer.)

For this year’s class, students travelled around Abbotsford, visiting businesses and public spaces and evaluating them on whether they were accessible to people with disabilities and mobility challenges. The students rated each business, then sent out letters suggesting how each business or organization could improve their building to make it more accessible.

Just after that stage of the project had finished, De Meyer broke her ankle in a rugby game and found herself on crutches. And when she tried to get around her own school, she encountered some of the same barriers she had been learning about in the course of her school work.

Doors were hard to open. Buttons for automatic doors didn’t work. One floor lacked an accessible washroom. And there were a limited number of keys to use the elevator.

These experiences informed her research and the painting that constituted her final project. It shows a student in a wheelchair encountering a set of stairs en route to her classroom. On the stairs are the words “There Is No Elevator To Success You Have To Take The Stairs.”

The paintings weren’t just coursework. The class was also a public-facing project. At the end of the term, there would be an exhibition and event to show off the art to the public. The paintings would then be sold, with proceeds going to help fund an accessible playground at a nearby school.

The art showcase had been a roaring success last year, raising money for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, and prompting a sizeable article in the Abbotsford News. This year’s event was slated to be just as large, with local politicians among the expected guests.

De Meyer was chosen from her class of 23 students to speak about the course, its goal, and her own experience. She would take to a podium immediately after Abbotsford Mayor Ross Siemens concluded his remarks.

But the day before the event, De Meyer was called into a room by her teacher and told that administration had said she couldn’t deliver her prepared remarks. Instead, the teacher said her speech had been edited to remove any mention of the school and De Meyer’s own challenges. De Meyer was told that if she went off-script, her teacher could be disciplined.

“It sucked,” she said. “It didn’t feel like anything I wrote. It felt like lies, because it wasn’t the intention of what I was writing.

“I’d been rehearsing it for the whole week, was ready to go. And then for it to be changed in some vast way—because it removes basically my entire personal experience with the class—is super frustrating.”

De Meyer’s second half of her speech mentioned the challenges at her own school. But it didn’t dwell on them. Instead, she concluded by describing the work she had done to try to improve accessibility at her own school, and by mildly observing that advocating for change requires persistence.

Here’s what she had planned to say:

“Shortly after our community-based project, I broke my ankle in a rugby game, leaving me in an air cast and on crutches. I had to navigate life with this new perspective, facing challenges to my mobility while still attending school. I encountered many problems, such as not being able to enter the building by myself due to the absence of automatic doors, not having access to the elevator because the office ran out of keys, and not having access to appropriate washrooms. These challenges left me dejected and frustrated as I constantly faced barriers just to attend school as easily as I had two weeks prior.

“I turned to the lessons we learned in our class and wrote a letter to our principal, Mr. McDonald, and the superintendent, Mr. Nosek, about the lack of accessibility and the barriers I was facing at Robert Bateman. I also researched the accessibility code and wrote another letter detailing areas we could improve. In my research, I learned that our school district has an accessibility board instituted last fall. I filled out their form detailing the accessibility barriers present at Robert Bateman, and they soon got back to me about my concerns.”

She concluded by saying that her perspective on accessibility issues had changed and that she had learned “change takes patience and persistence.”

But administrators had scrubbed De Meyer’s speech of any mention of Bateman’s own accessibility challenges. Although the fact that De Meyer had encountered challenges was preserved, it was no longer clear that those barriers were at Robert Bateman itself.

Now, following the line about breaking her ankle, the speech said:

“I had to navigate life with this new perspective, facing challenges to my mobility while still doing the things I love. I encountered many problems when trying to navigate my life and these challenges left me dejected and frustrated as I constantly faced barriers just to get around as easily as I had two weeks prior.”

And whereas De Meyer had levied lukewarm criticism at the accessibility of her school, the rewritten speech awkwardly seemed to sympathize with administrators and praise them for the work they had done.

“I turned to the lessons we learned in our class and wrote to people in positions who can assist with possible changes in the future, knowing that there are many things to consider. I also researched the accessibility code. I also learned that our school district has created an accessibility board instituted last fall that is dedicated to improving accessibility and inclusion in our schools.”

Despite her speech being censored, De Meyer found solace in the fact that she, like all the art activism students, had written an artistic statement to describe her painting and the inspiration behind it. While the speech was neutered of her own thoughts, De Meyer knew her statement would give visitors and audience members the full context of her work.

“I was trying, in my brain, to rationalize something that was obviously terrible,” she said.

But the day of the art show, just as it was about to open, De Meyer was again pulled aside by her teacher. Administrators had read her artistic statement and said that the booklets containing the entire class’s statements couldn’t be distributed unless De Meyer’s was replaced.

Again, all references to Robert Bateman school and De Meyer’s personal experience were scrubbed.

“I was super-shocked,” she said a couple days later. “In my brain that was like, the one thing I didn’t think they could change because it was literally my coursework, like my personal experience. And it wasn’t anything bad. I didn’t, like, curse out the administration or say anything bad. I just wanted them to do what they said that they were going to do.”

When her teacher told her that her artistic statement would also be censored, De Meyer said she began crying and left the building to collect her thoughts.

“I needed to process this fact, that the thing that explains my entire personal experience and my painting was forced to change.”

De Meyer’s artistic statement began with a description of the school’s accessibility issues. It concluded with a firm but polite call to action.

De Meyer’s artistic statement was scrubbed of all references to her own school’s accessibility barriers.

De Meyer wrote that she hopes her school and the school district follow up on accessibility promises and plans and “and address these barriers that prevent students from getting the education they deserve.”

She finished with a sentence declaring that she hoped the school district heard her voice and improved accessibility at Robert Bateman.

But none of those attending the event read those words. Instead, they were axed from her statement. A new, shorter statement was printed out and glued into the booklet. The words were still De Meyer’s, but had been re-organized to make up for the fact that it no longer contained the context behind her work, and her call to action.

Only De Meyer’s painting was left uncensored. With De Meyer’s speech and her artistic statement altered, the only way one would understand the artwork was linked to personal experience was by personally talking to the artist at the event.

Lexis De Meyer’s painting was inspired by accessibility barriers in her own school. 📷 Lexis De Meyer

By the end of the event, De Meyer’s mood had turned from despair to anger. And not just at school administrators.

“I was shocked. Then really angry and majorly disappointed. I was disappointed in myself that I thought that somehow they wouldn’t do that. Not that they couldn’t, but they wouldn’t because it was literally my coursework.”

Looking back, De Meyer hasn’t become less upset.

“My personal experience fully got changed and what it was replaced with wasn’t like the truth. And it felt like I was admitting white lies and things. I was like ‘Why am I being asked to lie for the administration?’

“It felt like the opposite point of the class.”

The Current contacted school district administrators to ask about whether it considered it appropriate for administrators to censor De Meyer’s speech, and whether it had policies about the restriction of speech by students at public events. A spokesperson provided a statement Monday that said the school’s art activism program “has engaged many students over the years and encourages them to find their unique voices through art on topics that matter to them. This premise remains true today, as was evident at their year-end show held on Saturday, June 15, where students displayed projects that examined concepts of accessibility and inclusion.”

The district’s statement said it doesn’t comment on “individual student matters” because of privacy regulations, but added that school events “fall under the purview of the organizing teacher(s) and school administration to make final decisions around the contents of the program.”

It said “Students or staff with concerns about accessibility should be aware that we have an Accessibility Advisory Committee in place.” The statement pointed to this website.

Meanwhile, Lexis attended her convocation ceremony Monday. After receiving her diploma, she returned home and, at The Current’s request, recorded a video of her giving of the speech she had intended to give. You can view it below. She is standing in front of her painting.

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