When Karon Friesen was in junior high, she had a neighbor with Down syndrome. In the late 1960s, it was common for people with visible disabilities to not attend school. However, the mother of this young girl wanted to break out of the norm and pushed for her daughter to attend public school with other children. Even in her young age Friesen remembers thinking, ‘well of course she would attend school, why wouldn’t she?’

Fast forward 40 years, and Friesen has spent most of her life advocating for people with developmental disabilities to be afforded the same right to education as any other person.

“It’s always just been in me that everyone should have equal opportunity and that doesn’t mean one size fits all, it just means let’s give that opportunity,” Friesen said.

Friesen works at Mount Royal University in the Inclusive Post-Secondary Education Program, also called IPSE. This is a program that gives adults with developmental disabilities the chance to get the university experience. They can take up to three classes at a time for the four year program of their choice. Currently, there are students in Art History, Communications, and Health and Physical  programs.

Not every program is open to the IPSE students; it depends on what they are able to handle. They also get the chance to participate in everything that university has to offer including clubs, events and facilities according to Friesen.

body image karon

Karon Friesen has been a member of the IPSE staff since December 2016 and brings 30 years of experience with her. Photo courtesy of Karon FriesenHer favourite part about her job is the people she gets to work with. “I really like when you can see it on a student’s face that their confidence has increased.”

Friesen is not new to the world of special education,but she has only been working with Mount Royal University since December. Originally from Swift Current, Sask., Friesen says she always knew what she wanted to do but didn’t jump into post-secondary education right away. After working for a few years, she decided to pursue further education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She pursued an education degree with a major in elementary and a minor in special education.

After graduating and getting her first job in Grand Prairie, Friesen and her husband moved to Athabasca, AB., where they both were high school teachers. She was a special education teacher and he was a drama teacher. They’ve lived there with their two sons for the past 27 years.

“I’ve been doing special education all of my teaching career and I just recently retired from teaching but that makes me sound old and I’m not old … I’m still very passionate about inclusivity and working with students who have developmental disabilities,” Friesen said.

For her role as an educational facilitator with the IPSE program, Friesen is responsible for four students. Most of her time is spent going over assignments, finishing readings and completing research with students. Her students attend regular classes within their program, but depending on a student’s needs, she will work with professors to modify the course.

“I can take the course and modify it the way I feel is going to meet their needs best and each person is different … it’s all very individualized for the student and what they need,” she explains.

She spends three hours a week with each student and is also responsible for tasks like helping them register for courses. Mount Royal only has room for ten students in the program at a time so space only opens up when a student graduates.

Though there is limited space, Friesen sees that as a good thing. “Public school systems are so busy and have so many students, here I feel like I’ve been given the time to give the students everything that they need.”

Jesse Starkman is a second year broadcast student in the IPSE program and he recommends it to everyone. His favourite part about the program is having fun and talking about all of the interesting things he learns in his classes.

“I pretty much like all of them [classes] because they’re really, really good and I learn a lot from them,” said Starkman.

Not only does Starkman attend classes, but he also works at the Mount Royal Recreation center and volunteers at Canadian Olympic Park in the summers all while making time to stay active. He said his dream job when he graduates would be with CBC or Global News and really appreciates how his professors challenge him in his classes.

When she’s not in the classroom Friesen enjoys gardening, spending time in the outdoors and is an avid supporter of local theater, which is something her whole family enjoys doing together.

“Being new to Calgary I’m trying to find places to meet people … so I just put my application in to volunteer at a theater company,” Friesen said.

Friesen is admired by her colleagues for her professionalism and knowledge about working with people with developmental disabilities. “Parents should search out options for their adult children to give them the best opportunities that they can have.” – Karon Friesen

“She’s got extensive experience and that’s why I’m always bugging her,” laughs Jasdeep Sidhu, another educational facilitator for the IPSE program. “I really do appreciate her sharing that with me.”

Though Friesen has spent a lot of her life working with people with disabilities she doesn’t see herself slowing down anytime soon. She hopes to continue working at Mount Royal and really wants more people to know about options like IPSE for their children.

“Parents should search out options for their adult children to give them the best opportunities that they can have,” Friesen said.


Editor: Amber McLinden | amclinden@cjournal.ca

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