VIU Honorary Degree Recipient Fostered a Culture of Inclusion in BC

Dr. Dana Brynelsen is a pioneer in the field of early childhood education.

May 10, 2016 - 8:45am

Dr. Dana Brynelsen’s pioneering work in early childhood development to be honoured at VIU’s June 7 convocation ceremony

Dr. Dana Brynelsen has helped change how society views people with developmental disabilities.

As provincial advisor of the Infant Development Programs of BC from their inception in the early 1970s until 2010, Brynelsen worked hard to foster a culture of inclusion at a time when segregation of children with developmental disabilities was the norm. She also ensured people working with infants and young children had the support they needed to help these children realize their full potential.

Brynelsen is being recognized for these contributions with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Vancouver Island University (VIU) during the University’s convocation ceremonies on Tuesday, June 7 at 10 am.

“It’s a great honour, but I really see it more as an acknowledgement and recognition of my field and that’s why I’m so happy to be receiving this,” says Brynelsen. “There’s been an enormous shift in terms of how we view differences, and in our expectations – positive expectations – and that’s been hugely rewarding to witness.”

Brynelsen remembers the parent of a child with Down Syndrome coming to her in the early days of the program and saying, “It’s a shame she cannot read at school, she reads so well at home.” Brynelsen dug deeper and learned the girl’s teacher didn’t think a child with Down Syndrome would be able to read, so had not provided a reading program. “Nowadays, most children with Down Syndrome are in school getting a good education, moving into employment, and many, with support, are living independently. The difference is amazing.”

Dr. Carol Stuart, Dean of VIU’s Health and Human Services department, says the Infant Development Programs that Brynelsen helped establish made a huge contribution to this shift in opportunities because they supported families to maximize the development of their children as soon as a developmental delay became apparent. “The focus was not on treatment or a cure, but rather on recognizing the diversity of abilities we all have and the unique contribution any child makes to a family and to friends and society.”

When Brynelsen was first hired to oversee a small, home-based program in the Vancouver and Richmond, BC, area for infants and young children with developmental disabilities in 1973, she was charting completely new territory, as this was the first home-based program in the country. While she had trained as a teacher at the University of British Columbia (UBC), she had no expertise in child development, and the common practice at the time was to institutionalize infants with intellectual disabilities, so there were no guidelines to help her.

“If parents did not institutionalize infants, they were cared for at home, but there were no supports,” Brynelsen remembers. “We were a country where exclusion of children and adults with disabilities was very much the norm.”

She quickly realized there were many families outside of the Vancouver area who were anxious for information and support, so when the provincial government asked her to help develop this service throughout the province, she was happy to jump into that role.

“We went from one little program that started in 1972, to 54 programs when I left in 2010,” says Brynelsen. “It was a very exciting time and I worked with many amazing people. Most of my efforts throughout my career focused on improving opportunities for people working in this field to acquire the skills and knowledge needed. It’s a very complicated, challenging area. Staff working with these children need to be able to work effectively with families, and have a sound understanding of child development and how to encourage it.”

To ensure the infant development consultants had access to this kind of specialized training, Brynelsen worked with UBC to develop certificate and diploma programs in infant and child development ­– the first training of this kind available in Canada. Staff serving the province’s infant development programs encounter a huge span of issues, from children at risk of developmental delays due to premature birth, to children who have difficulties walking or speaking, to those with severe disabilities or life-threatening conditions. Some children, with a bit of help, catch up and move out of the program quickly, while others need continued support. And no two children with the same condition are alike, says Brynelsen.

“Every day there was a new challenge and something new to learn,” she says. “It covers every aspect of the human condition, from the depths of despair, to great creativity, to the heights of joy. There’s a great deal of reward in being able to help someone who’s in need of support.”

That included staff working in the programs as well as the children and their parents. Mary Stewart, who worked as an infant development consultant in a small Northern BC community, remembers Brynelsen giving staff lots of opportunities to take further training.

“Dana has changed the landscape of early intervention work in BC and the Infant Development Program is a model recognized nationally and internationally,” says Stewart. “By starting with supporting families to keep their children at home and keeping families intact, she created a movement where everything is possible. She is the best kind of scholar and academic because she understands that knowledge is most useful when it enriches the lives of others.”

Brynelsen also helped develop the Aboriginal Infant Development Programs, another initiative she was proud to be a part of. All of this knowledge was documented in several articles that Brynelsen presented at international conferences to help others learn from her experiences.

For her efforts in early childhood intervention, Brynelsen has received numerous awards, including the Order of British Columbia – the province’s most prestigious honour – the Marianne Drew-Pennington Distinguished Service Award, an Outstanding Achievement Award from the BC Association of Family Resource Programs, and the Carol Matusicky Distinguished Service to Families Award from the BC Council for Families.

While Brynelsen is proud of these achievements, she’s far more excited about what this kind of recognition means for the families she’s helped over the past four decades and the staff that serves them. “It is such important recognition of the significance of this field,” she says. “Getting children off to a great start is critical.”

Brynelsen will accept her honorary doctorate on Tuesday, June 7 at the 10 am convocation ceremony. To learn more about VIU’s convocation ceremonies, click here.



Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

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