Stephen Dustan is a 23-year-old rehab services student doing a placement at Holland Bloorview. He works with life-skills coach Sarah Keenan, meeting youth in the community to help them set independence goals. Stephen knows our hospital intimately. As a child with cerebral palsy he attended our integrated kindergarten program. Since then he’s been an inpatient and outpatient; a Spiral Garden camper and volunteer; a high-school co-op student in our integrated kindergarten (working with his old teacher Paul Alcamo); and he now works part-time as a recreation assistant with our inpatients. One of our family leaders suggested we interview him.
BLOOM: Why did your parents choose our kindergarten for you?
Stephen Dustan: I think what attracted them most was the fact that I would have therapy and be in a place that was equipped to handle my needs. They loved the idea of it being integrated with community kids because that gave you such important skills of being able to articulate your disability to able-bodied kids, which is something you’re going to do lifelong as a person with a disability.
BLOOM: What do you remember about our school?
Stephen Dustan: I remember having my disability explained in a way that I understood and in a way that I could explain it to other kids. My 'go-to' is that my brain got cut-off from oxygen at birth, damaging the way my muscles communicate to my brain. So my muscles are tighter and don’t grow properly like normal kids’ muscles do.
BLOOM: Did that explanation satisfy most kids?
Stephen Dustan: They often gave me a blank stare. It kind of went over their head but it kind of sunk in. I found my willingness to explain it beneficial. Kids are just curious, they’re not mean by nature, and if you provide them with an answer, they usually were pretty receptive and understanding.
BLOOM: What was it like to move to your local school for Grade 2?
Stephen Dustan: The moments when I would feel different from the class were when everyone was getting ready for recess, especially in winter, and it would take me longer, so I’d have less time outside to play. Getting an educational assistant in place for me was difficult and took some time. But I was good at self-advocacy and stating my needs. So I asked whether I could get ready five minutes earlier than the class. My disability was never an issue for me socially. I have an older sister and I had the support of her and her friends so the kids in my class gave me respect. I always had friends to confide in and rally around me. It wasn’t until Grade 8 that I experienced some bullying.
BLOOM: What happened in Grade 8?
Stephen Dustan: I did my last year of elementary school in a new school that opened in my neighbourhood, so I was starting again without friends. I fell into a group of friends that were kind of mean to each other and very political. I did experience some bullying and I definitely can relate to the isolation that that causes: the feeling of not wanting to go to school; hearing whispering and thinking it’s always about you. I told my friends and parents but I never got the authorities involved. I waited it out until high school and it got a whole ton better then. I remember on the first day of high school I was really nervous and I came through the doors on my scooter and there were three of my old friends from elementary school and instantly I knew that it was going to be fun.
BLOOM: What is your university program like?
Stephen Dustan: I found this York/Seneca rehab program where you get your BA in psychology, which I now have, and then a certificate in rehab services. It’s a general program that covers all aspects of rehab. What I like most is that I had the opportunity for field placement.
BLOOM: What did you do as a placement?
Stephen Dustan: Two years ago I worked with The Centre for Dreams, which is a day program for adults with developmental disabilities in Markham. I worked with clients on social goals, life skills, self-care and vocational skills. I had never worked with clients with developmental disability and it was a really great experience. I got a new appreciation for how honest people with developmental disability can be, how kind they can be, how open hearted they can be. It was a privilege to work with the clients and the staff.
BLOOM: What are you doing in your placement here?
Stephen Dustan: I’m in therapeutic recreation and life skills working in the community with Sarah Keenan. I’m learning about the life skills process, the different ranges of goals that clients set and how to achieve these goals. It’s very solution-focused.
BLOOM: Have you found anything about the work surprising?
Stephen Dustan: I knew I would like it, but the amount I like it surprised me. Life-skills coaching is definitely something I could see myself doing and having this experience with Sarah helps me in my job as a casual staff on the inpatient unit being a recreation assistant. I can apply what I’m learning to both situations.
BLOOM: What is your favourite part of the work placement?
Stephen Dustan: I love the element of counselling and coaching and being a part of someone’s development. My future goal is to pursue a master’s in social work and get into counselling.
BLOOM: Does it seem unusual to you that you spent so much time here growing up and now work here?
Stephen Dustan: Holland Bloorview was such an integrated part of my life. I never had any negative feelings around this place. For example, I didn’t connect it to the more traumatic elements of my recovery after my surgeries when I was an inpatient here. It was physically painful to do rehab, but it wasn’t emotionally painful or painful in a way that would make me not want to come back.
BLOOM: How would you describe Holland Bloorview?
Stephen Dustan: It’s incredibly unique and alive. For me it’s been a place of recovery and opportunity and it still is. There is something magical about this place, especially the Spiral Garden program. I went there when I was little and I later volunteered there. They’re phenomenal at putting this element of imagination, of magic, into a place that traditionally shouldn’t have any. From my time working at Spiral Garden and on the inpatient unit in general I’ve come to see the amount of work and organization that go into creating that recreation hour with the clients gardening. How many people pour their heart into what they’re doing, the amount of organization and heart and energy it takes.
BLOOM: Has your view on disability changed over the years?
Stephen Dustan: When I was a kid I always had this idea that you’re not disabled, you can do anything a normal kid can do it will just be a bit more challenging or you’ll do it differently. That helped me tremendously as a kid, but now as an adult I can recognize that it’s not a matter of me not being disabled. Disability can be an identity, a social identity. So much of my strength has come from 'being disabled' that I no longer see it as a weakness or something you have to distance yourself from or deny. It’s something you can accept and in some ways celebrate.
BLOOM: What are some strengths that have come from your disability?
Stephen Dustan: I think there’s a depth, an internal space that I have to hold things, to connect with people, to understand people’s struggles and emotions. Because I’ve been placed in intense situations that most people don’t experience, I’ve got insight into where strength and hope come from when it’s really dark. I know that that light is inside everyone and you have to find it and if you can relate to it in an authentic and real way, you can make that light brighter in yourself and in someone else.
BLOOM: So disability isn't something you need to 'overcome?'
Stephen Dustan: No. I’ve done a few disability studies courses that opened my eyes to the idea that disability is really a matter of social barrier and not a matter of something being biologically wrong with a person. It’s not about overcoming tragedy. It’s more about transforming tragedy into triumph, but not in the sense that you move past it or get over it. You accept the disability with such wholeheartedness that it no longer is something that impedes you on your path.
BLOOM: What was it like to come back as a placement student in the integrated kindergarten you had gone to as a young child?
Stephen Dustan: So many memories that were foggy came flooding back. Paul is exactly the same in every way I remember him. He still gets the most stoked about dinosaurs of anyone I know. I remember as a student I knew every dinosaur’s name and now I can see why I was so passionate about that topic—because Paul was.
BLOOM: What impact do you think you had on the kindergarten students when you came back?
Stephen Dustan: I hope they can see themselves in me and we have that connection. It’s the idea of 'Hey, I made it, I’m doing well and you can too.' I hope they take from my example that they too can be a part of this world in a real and authentic and powerful way. I try to remind myself that I’m a role model and to hold myself accountable to that.
Here's a photo of Stephen as a co-op student in the integrated kindergarten. By Paul Alcamo.