Changing Times

 

When I was first introduced to disability issues 20 years ago, Canada was a
different place. Children with disabilities were segregated; adults with disabilities were institutionalized. Their faces were unfamiliar, absent from
my schools, streets, stores. Disability was not visible among my family members,
friends or neighbours.

But from the first moment I became involved with people who had disabilities,
their issues became my passion. Not because I had some noble calling, as many able-bodied people felt compelled to suggest to me (“I admire you,” they said tritely twenty years ago, simply because they didn’t want to shed their own comfortable shoes); rather, I was passionate about disability issues because these fundamental matters are about all of us. We all have a need, whether we acknowledge it or not, to know, love and participate in society alongside our fellow Canadians with disabilities.

It was this passion that eventually steered me to the Canadian Abilities Foundation, which, led by Raymond Cohen, shared my commitment to contribute toward a positive change in our society. I found a place for myself, here in the editorial gears of ABILITIES magazine, and thrived for 13 years, taking great pleasure in presenting disability news, information and resources to Canadians
who could truly benefit from them. The rewards have been many – not the least of which have been the relationships developed with many colleagues from all walks of life who, over these years, have evolved into good and valued friends.

I have also had the rich reward of a front-row seat to witness the progress that has been made in the areas of inclusion and awareness, rights and legislation,
over the last 20 years. For although there is far to go – no advocate would argue that the work is near done – the changes over the past two decades are vast. In 1982, as a student in Ottawa, I watched a local story unfold of a young man with cerebral palsy who wanted to leave an institution. His own father took him to court under Ontario’s Mental Health Act to argue that his son was incompetent and force him to stay confined. In the TV news clips I saw, a non-verbal, quadriplegic man was being carried like a baby up the steps of the courthouse where he would prove he was a competent adult. It was a degrading media shot but he won the case. By the time I befriended him a few years later, Justin Clark had moved into the community, had travelled abroad and was pursuing post-secondary education. Deinstitutionalization wasn’t yet in the dictionary;
he was truly one of the pioneers.

So many elements of Justin’s story just wouldn’t exist in a comparable present-day scenario, at least not so overtly. And yet, certain stubborn threads still extend across the decades to be woven, however subtly, into the tapestry of today’s issues. Lack of physical access is still a problem. Discriminatory
attitudes continue to hold people like chains. Media portrayal is far from perfect. And then a horrifying case like the sanctioned slow murder of beautiful
Terri Schiavo in the U.S. comes along as a wakeup call, reminding us how perilously close to the edge we still are. We’ve all got to keep on.

And keep on I will, even as I prepare to leave my longtime position as Managing Editor of ABILITIES magazine. Nine years ago I married an incredible man who has a significant disability – now I know disability will forever be a key component
of my personal life. In my new work world I will be expanding my freelance writing career; already the theme of disability rights is emerging in various articles I write for mainstream media. So even though I won’t be here at the Canadian Abilities Foundation, my passion will never be far away.

I feel we have been extremely lucky to find a talented new Managing Editor, Jaclyn Law, who can offer both personal experience with a disability and professional expertise as a writer and editor. I have complete confidence in her ability to effectively lead the production of the magazine, contributing new ideas and a fresh perspective.

But, needless to say, it is with mixed emotions that I hand over to Jaclyn the password to my computer files and the comfy desk chair. I’m excited about the new challenges of a freelance career. But I know I’ll miss the connections that have grown here over the years.

Let’s all keep on. And as Ray Cohen often says in this editorial space – keep in touch.

 

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