Forging Ahead Together


In 1991, the Canadian Association of Independent Living Centres (CAILC) began its second literacy project. The focus was within the centres themselves, and on how they respond to consumers who have a low level of literacy.

With this in mind, a workshop on literacy awareness was conducted for representatives from five Independent Living Resource Centres (ILRCs). A paper entitled “Literacy and People with Disabilities” was developed and distributed to all ILRCs as a result of this workshop. Before project’s end, material on literacy was collected and distributed to member ILRCs, and a literacy awareness seminar was held at the CAILC Annual General Meeting in 1991.

In 1993, phase one of CAILC’s third literacy project commenced. It consisted of a workshop on plain language delivered to ILRC representatives. As well, information on plain language, literacy awareness, and literacy and people with disabilities was collected and distributed to all ILRCs.

The second phase of this project was piloted at the Niagara Centre for Independent Living. The primary objective of this phase was to develop a literacy handbook for Independent Living Resource Centres and to deliver training on how to implement a disability and literacy awareness program to representatives from the ILRCs. Working with community literacy providers and consumers as well as members of the ILRC, workshop frameworks were developed.

This phase of the project resulted in the publication of “A Community Handbook on Developing a Literacy and Disability Awareness Program.” This document’s two main objectives were: 1) to help the Independent Living Resource Centres and other community groups become more accessible to consumers with low literacy skills; and 2) to supply a framework and tools that would enable the ILRC to develop a disability awareness workshop designed for community literacy programs.

This brings us to the literacy symposium, “Empowerment Through Learning,” in May, 1995. In a sense, this symposium was a culmination of the experiences of all previous literacy projects undertaken by CAILC. CAILC had informed the literacy community about disability awareness and the barriers people with disabilities face when seeking literacy skills, and had provided the tools and encouragement to the ILRCs to do the same. CAILC had also worked hard at promoting literacy awareness and a literacy-friendly atmosphere within the ILRCs. It was felt that this should be a time to bring together these two groups — representatives of the literacy community and of the disability community — in order to examine our common goals and develop solutions to our common challenges together.

Currently, most ILRCs have plain language policies in effect, and information on literacy and literacy services. Many are also forming linkages with literacy organizations within their communities to learn more about their services and experiences with disability issues.

Staff members from ILRCs across Canada attended “Empowerment Through Learning: A Symposium on Literacy” from May 29-31, 1995. The symposium was basically the final step in the most recent phase of the literacy project for CAILC. Prior to this symposium, many national and regional projects were underway in the area of literacy, and several regional and local programs were in existence. Also, literacy projects were being developed regarding specific issues and populations, such as people with disabilities.

The Independent Living Resource Centres play a key role in bridging the gap between the literacy and disability communities at the local levels. The symposium on literacy provided an ideal forum for sharing information and ideas and for essential linking and spanning the gaps in services in the area of literacy issues. Besides disability, the special interests and concerns of other marginalized groups present at the symposium were also addressed to a certain extent. A staff representative at CAILC described the symposium as “the coming together of people of very diverse backgrounds. People were not there to complain about what was not happening; instead, the focus was on what was happening and what they would like to see happen.”

Clearly, forming partnerships was a central theme, particularly between the literacy and disability communities. The ultimate goal, of course, is always to make programs more accessible for people with disabilities. This is true not only in terms of physical accessibility, but also attitudinal accessibility. Attitudinal barriers remain one of the greatest obstacles for people with disabilities. Often, people with disabilities do not have the same opportunities to acquire education or training as other individuals in Canadian society. Consumers must, therefore, have access to services that are proactively delivered in order to improve the present situation.

There was a general feeling by CAILC staff that the symposium created a solid foundation on which to build partnerships. Everyone was willing to participate to make this happen. Literacy providers, in particular, appreciated having a forum for discussions on literacy issues.

Literacy is clearly important for Independent Living and for a good quality of life. A CAILC staff representative summarized this idea astutely: “Ultimately, we’re all in the same business of wanting to promote independence. Literacy is one essential way of doing this.”

(Sarika Gadia is in a summer position at CAILC working as a researcher/writer.)

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