A Lasting Gift Yvonne Penner's Legacy to Inclusive Education

Pioneers in the field of inclusive education, Irma and Peter Penner credit their daughter’s generosity for changing how we understand the benefits of an inclusive community. As they look back on her life, what emerges is a legacy of empathy and kindness that will be felt for generations to come.

“When Yvonne was two-years old,” Irma Penner recalls, “the medical people actually pressured us to put her into an institution.”

As it turns out, such pressures, along with the corresponding sense of perseverance required to endure them, would become a defining trait of the Penner family. And yet by refusing to isolate their daughter within an institutional setting, Irma and Peter became instrumental in what was then the still-nascent movement towards inclusion and community living. Thanks in large part to their efforts, New Brunswick families like theirs are now greeted with a broader range of options when it comes to nurturing the healthy development of their children.

Yvonne with her nieces


Misdiagnosed from a young age, Yvonne Penner’s lifetime spanned a period during which the regressive practices of the past gave way to a more accommodating system, one that better understands the value of inclusive education. The evolution in thinking that’s taken place does not, however, fully erase the hardships that the family endured. Irma’s memories of Yvonne’s childhood are, in fact, rife with instances where the systems that were supposed to support them proved, time and again, to be alienating.

“They would see the roadblocks,” explains Irma, “as opposed to the opportunities.” Irma believes that their efforts to include Yvonne were perceived as somehow threatening the status quo, even though what they wanted more than anything was for their daughter to have the very same experience as other children her age.

Believing that Yvonne deserved a place in an everyday classroom alongside her peers, the couple sought the support of other families who found themselves facing similar challenges.

“It can’t just be us.”

It was through a friendship with another parent in a similar situation that Irma was introduced to the New Brunswick Association for Community Living. Right away, the Penners knew they had found the support that they needed.

“We started going to meetings, and we found out about other parents, and formed a parent group. Together, with the Association, they helped us to push governments for respite services.”

Thinking back on this chapter in their lives, the Penners believe it was the sense of fellowship that the New Brunswick Association for Community Living helped foster with other families that ultimately enabled them to lobby for greater access to inclusive education.

“The main thing was that we were able to connect with other parents who understand,” Peter says. “You share information, and it just starts spreading from there.”

“Even if the system tried to tell us that it wouldn’t work, knowing that we had their backing, we could stand our ground. And push forward.” -Peter Penner, reflecting on the support of NBACL


Listening to Yvonne's parents share her story, what becomes clear about their daughter's journey is that the concept of the inclusive classroom was, at the time, still foreign and threatening to many involved in the decision-making process. As Irma tells it, a lot of the work that they did on Yvonne's behalf was simply explaining the aims of inclusion from a parent's perspective.

“Basically, we just said: ‘we want her to participate as much as she can. And if an accident happens, an accident happens.’ You just deal with it the way you would any other child.”

the difference inclusive education makes

These portraits illustrate the very real transformation that Yvonne underwent as a result of moving from a segregated classroom to an inclusive one. The picture to the left was taken during the 1984-85 school year, which Yvonne spent in a segregated classroom. In the centre, we see Yvonne after having been moved into a partially integrated classroom. Finally, Yvonne spent the 1986-87 academic year in a fully inclusive classroom, where she thrived among her peers as "just another kid at school."


While the benefits to Yvonne quickly became clear, a less anticipated outcome was the positive impact that Yvonne’s presence was having on her peers. The transformative effect she had on one student, in particular, still stands out in their minds.

When Yvonne was in the 8th grade, one of her classmates decided to celebrate April Fools Day by playing a prank on their teacher. Notorious for being the class bully, the classmate in question was a boy named John who had gone to lengths to coat his teacher’s chair with chalk dust. The prank, however, went awry when one of John’s classmates switched the teacher’s chair with his, and so, as it turned out, the prank was on him.

While her classmates were reveling in the bully’s comeuppance, Yvonne had a decidedly different reaction, as the turn of events moved her to tears.

"Yvonne was so sensitive," her mother explains. "She didn't like it when people made fun of somebody else."

Remarkably, Yvonne’s sensitivity was enough to soften John’s disposition, and so much so that the following day he found himself helping Ivonne up the steps and patiently seeing her into school.

Even though she herself was frequently misunderstood, the Penner’s story nevertheless illustrates that Yvonne was acutely aware of the needs of others. Her sensitivity, coupled with a strong sense of empathy, had a transformative effect on the people around her.

While the desire for change has motivated them for decades, the Penners are happy to see that some things have stayed the same. When they think back on their longstanding relationship with the New Brunswick Association for Community Living, what’s clear is that their support has been unwavering.

“NBACL still have the values they started with,” Peter remarks. “As parents, we feel a lot more optimistic.” It’s this sense of continuity that inspires hope in the people that the New Brunswick Association of Community Living supports.

Photo Credits

A warm word of thanks to the Penner family for generously providing photographs to help tell Yvonne's story. Thanks, too, to the many photographers who make their work available through the use of Creative Commons licenses.

Created By
NBACL Wilson


"Forest, Landscape, Sun" by Mandy Fontana is licensed under CCO 1.0 "Poppy Gypsophila Elegans" by Lee_seonghak is licensed under CCO 1.0

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