Diversity, Disability, Consultation: What I Learned

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Participants at the C-NAP Consultation (April 20-21). Meenu Sikand is third from right

by Beth Woroniuk, WPSN-C Coordinator (follow her on twitter at @bethottawa)

Imagine getting back to your hotel after a long hard day at a conference and finding that your bathroom in your wheelchair accessible room has no support bars.  In a new city, you have to go out late at night and think of innovative ideas and supplies so you can use the washroom safely. This was just one lesson I learned about the everyday challenges faced by someone navigating our cities using a wheelchair.

When we started planning the April consultation on Canada’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (C-NAP), we wanted to reach out and include diverse voices: young, old, racialized, women coming from conflict affected countries, all abilities and sexual orientations, not just people in Ottawa, long-time activists on this issue and those new to the topic…

Where I ended up learning the most was about disability issues and importance of accessibility.

We initially checked our venue – was it accessible?  Yes, it was. Could our travel subsidy budget accommodate someone with additional costs given the accessible travel may cost more? Yes it could. So our thinking didn’t go much further than that.

We were very fortunate to have Meenu  Sikand, Founder and CEO (Canada) of Accessibility for All, sign up for the Consultation. Meenu enriched our discussions and brought home to me and other participants the importance of breaking down barriers. We also discussed how to include an accessibility lens in the new C-NAP. It became clearer to me just how many obstacles there are to expanding meaningful participation. It is also clear that concrete strategies and commitments are needed to remove these obstacles (and prevent them in the first place).

For example, we realized that our social on the evening of the first day had been planned for a venue that was not wheelchair accessible. If we had known about and used an accessible event planning checklist, we could have avoided this gaffe. But we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Next time we will be more vigilant.

It was also eye-opening to hear of the lengths Meenu had to go to to participate in the Consultation. Train travel is not always easy.  VIA can only accommodate one motorized wheelchair per train, thus it was impossible for her to catch a train at Union Station in Toronto. She had to travel 40 km farther, paying three times more than a normal taxi fare to use an accessible taxi. These are some of the additional burdens that Canadians with disabilities continue to face.

However, these insights created an opportunity for all of us to learn about accessibility and the important role it could play in creating an inclusive new C-NAP. By the end of day 2, many participants with invisible disabilities opened up about their experiences. Recommendations to consider needs of persons with disability in Canada’s policies and programmes in fragile and conflict-affected countries were developed.

Links to global movements are clear.  A new moving documentary, The Fight, looks at the struggle by disability activists in Bolivia for rights and benefits. The DisAbled Women’s Network-Canada has been active for more than 30 years, documenting and raising issues of concern at various levels.  New guidance to donors on how to support more inclusive movements and fund the rights of women with disabilities has been developed.

Throughout the Consultation, Meenu brought wisdom, passion, friendship and good humour.  Thank you Meenu!

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