Rick Hansen has said, “I honestly believe that my best work is in front, not behind me.” I think that his statement epitomizes the determination and drive he has put towards making our country more accessible and inclusive. One of his latest initiatives was hosting the Rick Hansen Foundation Youth Leadership Summit, a three-day event in Ottawa where 50 youth from all across the country gathered to learn about accessibility, inclusivity, and leadership in order to become the next generation of champions for change.
During Victoria Day weekend, I was lucky enough to be one of those participants. I and 49 other youth got the incredible opportunity to participate in activities and discussions around issues of accessibility and inclusivity for people of all abilities. It’s truly an incredible thing when you can meet 49 new friends who share the same interests and goals as you do. Each of us has different backgrounds and abilities and came from different places in Canada, but we all share one common dream: an accessible and inclusive country.
Meeting all these new people and hearing their stories, ideas, and unique perspectives was a true blessing. Seeing how each and every one of us aspired to make change in our respective communities left me believing beyond a shadow of a doubt that this dream of ours that entails an accessible and inclusive Canada is easily within our grasp. Just like Rick Hansen said, “If each one of us choose to change one small thing - together we can make a big difference.”
I believe it’s safe to say that the person I was going into the Summit as is different from who I am today. Fighting against ableism was always something I’ve been passionate about, and I had always tried my best to get the necessary information and tools to advocate for people with disabilities. However, the knowledge that the Rick Hansen Youth Leadership Summit has equipped me with certainly tops anything that I’ve learned from a book or the internet.
I got to participate in various activities, all which provided me with facts about the prevalence of disability in our country; physical and mental barriers that one with a disability may face; and how to break down barriers and systemic ableism.
One of the activities that impacted my perspective of the world the most was the accessibility audit. Using an accessibility checklist, we analyzed the accessibility of a restaurant, a church, and a shopping centre through several photographs of these buildings. We then discussed the barriers shown in the photographs and propose solutions and alternatives.
One image that stuck out to me the most was one of a bathroom. The bathroom was spacious and had seemingly everything one could need. I also thought it was accessible. However, accessibility needs for one person are completely different from another’s. I learned that the stalls were too narrow, making them inaccessible for people who use wheelchairs. The sinks and mirrors were too high, and because of the design, even the soap bottle was inaccessible for those who have little control over their hands. I was shocked by how pervasive these barriers are in our society and how people with disabilities have to face these barriers every single day.
Soon after doing the accessibility activity I began to really examine the world in a very different way. Every time I would enter a public space I’d go through the accessibility checklist in my head: “Is this passageway clear and free of barriers? Do these stairs have a tactile or rough edge? Does this crosswalk have audible signals?”
It was disconcerting to see how many public spaces in Ottawa had a myriad of barriers and lacked the necessary tools and services to make for an accessible and inclusive building. But I’m thankful that initiatives such as the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Access4All Canada 150 Signature Project are helping our country make progress in improving accessibility and inclusivity. However, we as a society still have a far way to go to ensure that everywhere is accessible for everyone.
Another thing that we experienced at the Summit were inspirational keynote speeches. The first speaker was Rick Hansen. One thing that really resonated with me was that when he completed his Man In Motion Tour, there was a banner that read “The end is only the beginning.” At first glance that statement seems paradoxical, but really I couldn’t think of a better way to describe the accessibility revolution that Rick started with his tour. It’s been thirty years since then, and he is still making a difference. He also talked about the importance of having an accessible country because 1 in 7 Canadians have a disability, and that number is expected to rise to 1 in 5 by 2036.
Another one of the great speakers at the event was Hannah Taylor. At the age of eight, Hannah founded the Ladybug Foundation, a charity that raises money to provide homeless people with food, shelter, and other necessities. She started the Foundation after seeing a homeless man digging through the garbage can for food. Hannah saw something in the world she wanted to correct, and she took action. I was so inspired by her because our society often thinks that you have to be a certain age to make a difference, but Hannah didn’t let that define her. Hearing her story and how she made a difference while she was so young, made me (and likely everyone in the room) feel like we could make a big difference too.
During the Summit, we also got the opportunity to see historical Canadian buildings such as Rideau Hall, Parliament Hill, and the Canadian Museum of History. I hadn’t been to Ottawa before so of course seeing these places for the first time had me awestruck. My favourite place was Parliament Hill. The architecture was beautiful and it was cool to be inside the building where Canadian history is made.
Speaking of Canadian history, the end of the Summit took place on the 30th anniversary of the end of Rick’s Man in Motion World Tour. In commemoration of this, Rick donated one of the gloves he wore during the Tour to the Canadian Museum of History’s Canadian History Hall. Rick made a formal announcement about his donation and spoke of the dreams, determination, and hard work that the gloves represent: “These gloves, they represent that dreams come true. But only with incredible hard work and determination.”
The gloves also represent a current goal of a more accessible and inclusive Canada. He said, “[The] gloves represent not just history, but the future of the country and a challenge to all of us. Let’s keep working to unfold that dream.” The donation serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come in the past thirty years for accessibility and inclusivity, as well as serving as a catalyst for conversation and social change to keep improving.
Over those three days, I learned invaluable lessons on accessibility and leadership that will forever be instilled in my mind. I left the Rick Hansen Youth Leadership Summit with the tools, skills, and knowledge to make a difference, and now I plan to apply them to promote accessibility and inclusivity in my community, and, on a larger scale, the world. It’s time to conquer barriers in society!
Guest blogger Alejandra Van Dusen is 14 years old and lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. She was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis when she was 18 months old, but never let it define her or stop her from pursing her dreams. She loves sports, especially swimming, and volunteering in her community.