Winnifred Stewart: a nurse who single-handedly changed care

The name Winnifred Stewart is synonymous with helping mentally handicapped children. For thousands of families with mentally handicapped children, she helped turn despair, frustration and social stigma into hope, understanding and community acceptance.

Stewart's family moved to Edmonton from British Columbia when she was a small child and, after finishing high school, she took her training as a Registered nurse at Edmonton General Hospital. Motivated by a desire to help her son Parker, who was born severely mentally handicapped, she devoted twenty years to experimental research into the methods of teaching the mentally handicapped. Observing the level of development that Parker obtained, Stewart became convinced that schools for the mentally handicapped were not only possible, but essential.

In the 1950s, Winnifred Stewart managed to arouse the interest of the provincial government in providing financial aid to schools for these children and then put her efforts into establishing the first association for teachers of the mentally handicapped. In 1954, she was the first woman to address the Alberta Legislature from the floor of the House. This resulted in the first recognition by a government in Canada to provide financial aid to schools for mentally handicapped children.

During the period from 1954 to 1970, Winnifred Stewart organized and founded schools for the mentally handicapped in nineteen communities across Western Canada. All these schools use the curriculum and teaching methods developed by Stewart for which she is internationally recognized.

Stewart worked closely with the University of Alberta regarding the mentally handicapped, providing a practical workshop for research projects. She also established a working relationship with forty-five school divisions within the province that have children attending the Winnifred Stewart School. Persevering in urging the Edmonton Association to establish a Vocational Training Sheltered Workshop for the mentally handicapped, Stewart saw the realization of that dream with the opening of Cerwood Industries in 1979.

In 1972, Winnifred Stewart was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in the same year received an Honourary Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) from the University of Alberta.