By Steve Hubrecht

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A Radium Hot Springs artist has created a book designed to raise awareness among valley students about inclusion of those with intellectual disabilities.

The artist — Veronika Kitzul, developed the book, titled His Name is Nicholas, based on the experiences of her own little brother Nicholas.

The book, which Kitzul has distributed to local school libraries, tells the tale of an energetic young boy Nicholas, who suffers a brain injury as a result of accident. Nicholas finds that people treat him differently as a result. The book goes on to outline how Nicholas still participates in all the same activities he loved before his accident: skiing, swimming and skating, and explains that although he has difficulty communicating, he still clearly understands everything going on around him. It concludes with discussion questions and notes specifically designed to get kids to think more deeply about what having an intellectual disability means, and about appropriate ways to treat people with intellectual disabilities.

“It is all about my real life little brother,” Kitzul told the Pioneer. “I wanted to do something to help teach about inclusion of those with intellectual disabilities. After Nicholas’ accident, we saw firsthand how people treated him differently. How they would just stare at him instead of saying ‘Hello’. It seems a lot of people just don’t know how to communicate with those with intellectual disabilities. And in the end, it’s not complicated – they just want to be treated like anybody else.”

Kitzul was struck by the considerable lack of representation in literature — be it adult literature or children’s books — of people with intellectual disabilities.

“The numbers are kind of shocking. It’s something like 0.01 per cent of books have a character in a wheelchair or with an intellectual disability,” said Kitzul. “If nobody’s teaching about it, how are kids going to learn about it?”

So, when an opportunity arose through the Invermere chapter of Special Olympic B.C. to create a children’s book, she jumped at the chance. Kitzul already was volunteer with the Invermere Special Olympics, and through that she found out about the organization’s youth engagement project. That project provided the funding needed to take the book from idea to reality.

Kitzul initially began the project intending to put her considerable artistic skill to use to create the illustrations with charcoal sketching, while another partner in the project would do the writing. That partner left the project, however, so Kitzul turned to her mother Kamila to do the writing. Kamila is a Calgary-based teacher, and was happy to help out.

It took about a year in total for His Name is Nicholas to become a reality. To start, Kitzul did some training sessions with Special Olympics B.C. for several weeks. Then it was on to planning, budgeting and engaging stakeholders. Once that was complete, the actual writing and drawing could begin. That was followed by editing and revision, and finally this past summer, by printing.

This fall Kitzul began distributing the books to local libraries and schools, as well some in Calgary, where her mom works.

“It’s been fun having my mom involved. And the feedback she’s gotten has been good. The book has been received quite successfully in some of the schools in Calgary. It’s been great,” said Kitzul. “I think my mom is very happy to have an opportunity to teach about exactly what Nicholas went through. She watched my little brother literally lose friends because he was different, and he was not as accepted anymore. That was really hard for her, and of course for me too. So in doing this, she feels she has a chance to help make that situation better for other kids.”

Nicholas’s accident happened almost exactly 10 years ago, in December 2012. He was eight years old at the time, and is now 18. 

“Like many people with brain injuries, my brother fully understands what is happening around him. It’s just very hard for him to communicate. He can’t fully walk or talk the way he once could,” explained Kitzul. 

Nicholas participated in the creation of the book too: after writing each page, Kamila would ask Nicholas what he thought, asking him if it was okay. 

“And he’d say ‘Yes’,” outlined Kitzul. “He understands it, and I’m pretty sure he supports it.”

Kitzul has been living in the Columbia Valley for two years, working as a social media manger and bartender at Ullr by night and working at Black Star Studios and as an artist during the day. Her charcoal sketches  — which are so startlingly detailed and life-like they almost look like photographs — have caught the eye of plenty of local residents, and she’s already managed to have an exhibition at Pynelogs.

She still has 11 copies of His Name is Nicholas as well as online PDF versions for anybody interested in using it as a teaching resource. To find out more, contact Kitzul at [email protected].