International Day of People with Disabilities: a Call for a Better World

The following is a speech I gave yesterday…


Good afternoon everyone, and thank you for inviting me to speak here today.

I think it’s impossible to have a discussion about activism without acknowledging that tomorrow is the International Day of People with Disability (IDPD). This is a day where people with disabilities across the world are encouraged to celebrate who we are, take stock of how we’ve come, and look forward to the struggles ahead. The United Nations encourages us to use this day as opportunity for inclusion and celebration, but also to organize and take action as we work to dismantle the barriers that keep us from full equality. Given the events of this past year, it seems appropriate that part of the theme for 2011 is “Together a better world for all”.

The UN noted that people with disabilities are largely excluded from civil and political processes and are overwhelmingly voiceless in matters that affect them and their society, but this year it seems we’ve found our voice.

In response to austerity cuts severely affecting programs similar to social assistance in the UK, people with disabilities took to the street in a “Hardest Hit” march. The organizers said about 5,000 people took part in the protest. Many travelled by coach and by train from as far a field as Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the south west to take part in what is being hailed the biggest gathering of disabled people in the UK the country had ever seen.

When the Occupy Movement began, people with disabilities were there, and welcomed in the fightback. When occupations sprung up across Canada in solidarity with the occupations in the United States, people with disabilities were among both the occupiers and people who support them. There is even a facebook page dedicated to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the movement.. People with disabilities were given accessible supports within the occupation in Toronto that would normally take months to receive in their day-to-day lives. This connection is an important one, because not only are people with disabilities part of the 99%, they are typically part of the lowest 1% of the 99%.

Here in Toronto, we were able to link the issues of the disability movement to the occupy movement through the Toronto Disability Pride March. On October 29th, 2011, one hundred people showed up at Nathan Phillips Square, and took to the streets to march down to the occupation, carrying signs that said things like “Build Ramps, Not Bombs” and chanting “ No Cuts, No Way! Tell Rob Ford we’re here to stay!” Shortly after this march, a similar event happened at Occupy Wall Street.

Since then, people with disabilities in Toronto have felt encouraged to be visible in their events and I think you’ll see this demonstrated tomorrow at the Winston Churchill statue when we celebrate IDPD. This event is usually city sponsored, but it slipped between the cracks this year, providing an opportunity for people with disabilities to take back the day.

Even with these great first steps, there is still much work to be done. The AODA has given us a focus on employment, transportation, the built environment, communications, and customer service, but there are still many inequalities that are left unaddressed by these standards. Issues such as low social assistance rates, and the attitudinal barriers faced in society also play a role in the isolation of people with disabilities.

In order to contribute effectively to society people also need to feel safe. This includes things like access to safe and affordable housing and feeling safe in society. Toronto is particular has experienced several situations in the past year and before that where people with disabilities have been harmed and mistreated by the police services set up to protect us. A particular image that comes to my mind was when a nine year old autistic child was handcuffed in a daycare, and the Toronto police considered this an appropriate action. Not to mention the countless incidents against people with disabilities that occurred during the G20. I would like to suggest that in a city like Toronto we can do better. I find it interesting also that while the American disability standards include best practices for police services in this regard, the AODA does not.

Experience shows that when persons with disabilities are empowered to participate and lead the process of society, their entire community benefits. Then how do we encourage those people?

The easiest way to get people involved in an issue is by talking about it Discussing an issue can actually be activism in itself, because it gets people thinking about how the issue impacts their life. This discussion can happen in an everyday conversation, a blog, a Facebook group, a radio show, or a larger event.

The five most important things to remember when working on an issues like this are:

  1. Avoid excluding people – everyone has something to offer, don’t discourage interest
  2. Be flexible – once your issue is a group issue, you’ve opened it up to people that may have different opinions that are also valid. Groups are dynamic, they change.
  3. Build alliances, this will help create critical mass and political will
  4. Prepare for your policy window, that right time when things can come together in a way that allows people to discuss these issues more openly.
  5. Have Fun – if you’re not having fun, it’s probably not worth doing.

Inclusion can come in many forms, all it takes sometimes is for someone to reach out and provide an opportunity, and we need this inclusion, especially from women and youth with disabilities who are so often left out of the picture. In honour of IDPD, I encourage all of you to please take up the touch and get involved. Together we can build a better world.


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