Empathy: the key to a more inclusive world for persons with disabilities

Photo courtesy of UNESCO

A few years ago, the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability showed that about 6.2 million individuals – or 22 per cent of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over – had one or more disabilities. Similarly, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2011 World Report on Disability revealed that one billion people – or 15% of the world’s population – are persons with disabilities. In the face of such staggering numbers, common human responses can include feeling overwhelmed or helpless, followed by frustrated inaction.

The United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, observed annually on December 3rd since 1992, is a great opportunity for more positive kinds of action. Individuals, businesses, organizations, and governments can use the day to start educating themselves on how to be more inclusive of people in their communities living with disabilities.

The work of inclusion

For Robin Syme, executive director at the University of Victoria’s CanAssist organization, it starts with a shift in perspective. “One thing that is helpful for me is that we are all on the spectrum of ability, all of us,” she says. “You look at it as a continuum: on the intellectual, some people are half-way and other people are down at the other end. Physically, for me, I’m in a different place than I am cognitively. And if I think about it, this is very simple, if you get an injury, you shift further back. I think helping people to understand that builds empathy and an appreciation for the contribution everybody makes.”

CanAssist, works to support people with physical or cognitive barriers to have more independent lives through innovative technologies, services, and programs. CanAssist’s technologies provide practical solutions to people living with cognitive or physical disabilities and range from tools helping to increase mobility and community access to tools increasing safety and independence at home, to learning technologies and even tools to improve access to sports and hobbies. The support provided by CanAssist’s youth program, TeenWork, is no less innovative: the program fills a gap by helping high school youth with physical or intellectual barriers find part-time employment and gain experience and employment skills as they transition into adulthood.

As Syme explains, the focus of CanAssist is on “supporting people with a very broad range of challenges, and we do work across not only the spectrum of ability but also the age spectrum, which is interesting because now we’re working through the life trajectory with people in some cases.”

For Syme, the goal of their mission is clear: “Our goal with all our programming, whether it’s technology development or our youth employment program is to introduce programming that is addressing an unmet need,” she says.

And CanAssist’s mission is having a real impact. Last year the organization supported just under one hundred people with adapted or new technologies, while 141 youth participated in the TeenWork program.

Welcoming newcomers with disabilities

Adrienne Bale, Manager of Settlement & Integration at DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society, is very aware of the complexities of integrating newcomers into their new communities in Canada. Newcomers are extremely diverse, not only in terms of their language and culture, but in their education, knowledge of the new language, socioeconomic level, and the circumstances of their immigration to Canada. Adding a disability into this list only compounds the complexity.

“There are so many challenges for newcomers, and just in general such a resilience,” Bale says, quickly adding how important it is to keep in mind the diversity of the immigration path of newcomers. “Somebody who comes in as a refugee has a completely different experience than somebody who comes in as an economic immigrant and even within that, versus the Temporary Foreign Worker, who is completely different; it’s such a diverse area and there are so many facets involved.”

Issues such as housing, employment, and facing prejudices – challenges almost all newcomers face – are amplified when they or a member of their family lives with a disability. “Finding affordable housing for anybody is hard, but then if you factor in having a disability, the housing that’s appropriate narrows down depending on the disability you have and your income bracket,” Bale explains.

From systemic racism to the infamous “Canadian experience” employers often ask as a prerequisite for hiring, to their language competence, connecting newcomers with disabilities to work is particularly challenging. “Employers already feel they are taking a chance sometimes on newcomers, but then if you have somebody who has a disability on [top of] that, from an employer’s point of view – not all, but some of them – they feel it’s really a risk that is going to cost them a lot of time,” says Bale. “So, there’s just that extra layer of challenge for some folks.”

Bale is effusive in her praise of the DIVERSEcity front line staff who provide support to newcomers with disabilities. Through their case management model, they often deal with very “high case volume and a vast complexity of cases.” She also praises the L.I.N.C. program for newcomers who are deaf and hard of hearing, which was offered in recent years by Vancouver Community College and which she considers very valuable support for recent immigrants.

Empathy in action

In addition to their expertise, both Syme and Bale agree that it comes down to building more inclusive communities and societies that welcome people of all abilities. For both, it all boils down to having understanding and empathy for people.

“It’s just taking those small steps often, and those acts of kindness, and having that empathy towards people. Everybody is trying to make their way and is just putting ourselves in other’s shoes and lending a helping hand,” Bale says.

For more information on the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, please visit www.un.org/en/observances/day-of-persons-with-disabilities. Visit CanAssist www.canassist.ca and DIVERSEcity www.dcrs.ca to learn more about their programs.