Jim Hansen

Jim Hansen a champion for special needs children

  • September 7, 2017

Every September when the school year begins, new teachers at the Hamilton Catholic District School Board are shown a video with some powerful advice for the classroom: “Imagine you have 30 reflections of God sitting in front of you every day.”

The words are spoken by Jim Hansen, a pioneer in Catholic education and an advocate for the inclusion of special needs students. He died Aug. 8 at age 85. Mr. Hansen’s son David, the educational director for the Hamilton board, said his father’s advice was a reference to Genesis 1:27 — “So God created man and woman in His own image” — and typified his philosophy on education for everyone.

“Dad was a passionate educator,” said David. “His life was centred around his family and Catholic education.”

That passion formed the basis for his model for inclusivity, Each Belongs, which took root in the late 1950s and led to the passing of Ontario’s Bill 82 in 1980, giving all children with disabilities access to publicly-funded education. The model was named after his saying, “Each belongs not because he or she can do something or cannot do something. Each belongs because he or she is.”

Mr. Hansen said all children, no matter their capabilities, had the right to learn alongside their peers. An educator with the Hamilton- Wentworth District Catholic Board (HWCDSB) for 31 years, he believed Catholic schools in particular had a duty to help handicapped students.

“The archbishop (at the time, Philip Pocock) believed that a Catholic school is one where Jesus is present,” Mr. Hansen told The Catholic Register in 1991. “The poor, the downtrodden, were present among Jesus in the Gospel, so if they’re not present among us, then neither is Jesus.”

Mr. Hansen, a native of Montreal, began teaching in the Hamilton Catholic School Board in 1960. By 1968, he and administration head Pat Brennan had begun to advocate for integration in Hamilton schools.

According to Mr. Hansen, special needs children would benefit from learning social and life skills in a standardized classroom. He also said that we could learn from them.

Mr. Hansen is remembered vividly by those who knew him.

“Jim was a deeply committed Catholic gentleman,” said Pat Daly, a trustee with the HWCDSB. He described Mr. Hansen as going “above and beyond” to ensure the wellbeing of each and every child.

Mr. Hansen had three sons with his wife Patricia: David; Anthony, who taught in Halton; and Paul, who is severely handicapped by cerebral palsy.

Mr. Hansen also served as chair of the Rygiel Home board in Hamilton, where his son Paul is a resident. Despite having a special needs child, Hansen said this never influenced his philosophies on integration, which he had supported before the births of his children.

The legacy of both Mr. Hansen and Each Belongs lives on through accolades he has received and awards given in his honour. The HWCDSB gives the Spirit of Community award to students who show outstanding community service and leadership. In October 2016, the board named the auditorium in the Nicholas Mancini Centre in his honour.

His funeral on Aug. 11 at Hamilton’s Annunciation of Our Lord Church was attended by about 250 people, including Bishop Douglas Crosby.

Anthony “Tony” Perri, a trustee for the school board, called Mr. Hansen a mentor in both his professional and personal life.

“I would often ask myself, ‘What would Jim do?’ ” said Perri. “In 1986, I wrote a motion to ban smoking on all school property. Despite the fact that Jim was a smoker, he encouraged me to do what I believed in. Eventually the motion was passed and we were the first board in the province to ban smoking. This would not have happened without Jim’s support.”

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