Activism, Disability Movement, Everyday Heroes

Canada’s Invisible Heroes

I’ve given a lot of thought to what I’m about to say, and before I begin I want to be clear that what I am about to say is not intended to offend anyone. For a long time now I have seen a need for change, and I feel a responsibility to draw attention to it.

As some of you probably know, a Canadian lawyer from Thunder Bay became the first quadriplegic to reach the North Pole earlier this month, but if you didn’t hear about I’m not surprised. Maybe it’s just me, but I would think that a momentous occasion such as this is a big deal for Canada and the disability movement; worthy of front page news, or at least a picture. Instead what I found was a few paragraphs in some of the major papers such as the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and the CBC. To add insult to injury, all of those articles actually came from The Canadian Press.

In reading this minimal coverage, I couldn’t help but wonder why this was the case. The media can only be partly to blame; they focus their efforts on where they feel they can attract the most interest. Team Independence certainly isn’t hiding their achievements, so is why is no one paying attention?

While I’m sure there’s many things that contributed to this lack of coverage, I couldn’t help but notice a pattern emerging. In recent history members of the disabled community have made many great achievements, but the general public barely knows about them, if at all. One needs only to look at the limited coverage of the Paralympics for this. There are others as well, such as Saskatchewan’s own Myroslava Tataryn, who has been bringing AIDS education to disabled women across the world, while living with a disability herself. Of course, we’re all familiar with Rick Hansen, and his famous Man in Motion tour, but there have been other heroes in the more than twenty years since then.  In contrast is the American Erik Weihenmayer who became the first blind man to summit Mount Everest in 2001; he has a book and movie!

If you’re thinking that this isn’t a big deal, or just Canadian modesty, think again. The disability movement in Canada is fairly strong, but it has a hard time appealing to the younger generation. This modesty in regards to our heroes is only part of a growing problem. Much of what goes on in the disability movement happens outside of the radar of the general public. The new standards being set by the province of Ontario are a great example. Despite the potential of these to greatly improve the lives of people with disabilities in Ontario, the average person on the street isn’t aware of their existence, or most of the barriers we face. What does reach the papers is the abuse of some disabled people (but not usually the ones who active in the community), or debates about the employability of disabled people and social assistance rates.

What ends up in the news paints the image of disability to the general public, including people with disabilities. If we don’t support people like Team Independence, we will have a hard time changing this image. The province is starting to notice barriers, but most of this is due to provincial legislation, the activists have remained largely invisible to those outside the disabled community. What this does is perpetuate the idea that people with disabilities aren’t active. I don’t think businesses would be so comfortable weighing their expenses against human rights if they could see our faces, and understand the diversity and numbers of people they are discriminating against by not being accessible. Instead we are being pacified by meager standards that don’t even meet the requirements currently in legislation.

This is my call to action. We need to do more than meet outside the public eye. It’s time to go back to our roots, hit the streets, and show our communities that we are not silent. All people with disabilities have overcome great obstacles to get where they are, and it’s time to embrace that. No successful social movement achieved what it did through modesty, and neither will we.

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