Five Good Ideas for disrupting ableism in the workplace
How can we embed Accessibility in our EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) work so our anti-oppression efforts foster belonging in our diverse workforce and reflect the values of intersectionality and disability justice? How do we do this work without creating increased stress and confusion among staff and board members?
While the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is our benchmark for change, it won’t need to be fully implemented until 2025. We can start now by shifting our organizational culture to ensure sustainable change. Start by recognizing the places we get “stuck.” Organizations and non-profit agencies can and should apply access and inclusion principles to programming, board initiatives, and the general organizational culture. This will foster a commitment that goes beyond compliance and the checking off of boxes.
To help us get “unstuck,” Fran Odette and Sree Nallamothu present five good ideas from their experience at the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres. Discover how you and your non-profit organizations can respond proactively to the need for an accessible workplace with integrity and accountability.
Five Good Ideas
- Assume that anyone coming into your place is someone with a disability: Adopt a proactive mindset toward accessibility.
- Inclusion is not about being nice: Move beyond niceties towards purposeful and creative practices that challenge the charity narrative.
- Recognize language has impact: Learn to recognize and disrupt ableist language and make an intentional shift towards inclusive and respectful communication.
- Embrace intersectionality: Bring an intersectional lens to your Anti-Oppression work and clarify how this approach benefits your organization and its members.
- Make accessibility a core budget line: Ensure change can be sustainable and that it goes beyond the bare minimum.
- Autistic Hoya: Ableism/Language
- Video: What is the social model of disability?
- Workshop links: Takeaways from TNC Disability Justice Conversation Series
- Sins Invalid: 10 Principles of Disability Justice
- Video: Applying a Disability Justice Lens to Transform Work and Workplaces
Please note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Elizabeth McIsaac: According to the latest Canadian survey on disability, roughly 8 million Canadians aged 15 and up experience a disability. So this means that people who experience some kind of limitation to their daily activity account for more than one quarter of the country, and this is probably similar in other countries as well. If you’re tuning into this Five Good Ideas session, maybe that statistic doesn’t surprise you because you’re paying attention.
Perhaps it also won’t surprise you to hear that the same survey found that in the past year, 70% of people with disabilities encountered barriers in accessibility. So if we do some very quick math, 70% of 8 million is 5.6 million. That’s about the size of Toronto. 5.6 million people in Canada face accessibility issues. That should stop you.
For today’s session, we’re looking in particular at how this plays out in the workplace. How can we as employers and colleagues make our workplaces more accessible? How can we push against ableism, that is to say, against prejudice, bias and discrimination directed towards people living with disabilities? Where should we start?
Introducing Fran Odette and Sree Nallamothu
To answer these questions, we are delighted to have Fran Odette and Sree Nallamothu join us today.
Fran teaches in the School of Social and Community Services at George Brown College. She has more than 25 years of experience in disability activism and education. Sree is the co-executive director at the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres. She’s a passionate connector and storyteller with extensive experience in relationship building, community engagement, and participatory filmmaking. Together they will present their five good ideas to respond proactively to the need for an accessible workplace with integrity and accountability.
Since many of you watch and listen to this session from different cities, provinces, and even countries, let me mention that Fran and Sree won’t be presenting advice on how your organization can become compliant with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act or any other legislation. They’re aware of the ongoing processes for developing and enforcing accessibility standards, but today they won’t provide you with a list of step-by-step items that you can check off. Instead, they are going to share from their own experiences working on the issue the challenges that they’ve encountered and some of the solutions they have found helpful.
So Fran and Sree, welcome. It can be daunting to figure out where to start. So how do we get started? What can help people get on their way? Over to the two of you.
1. Be proactive about accessibility
Fran Odette: Thank you so much. I think the first good idea that we can offer is assume that anyone coming into your place could be someone with a disability. So it’s important to adopt a proactive mindset toward accessibility. Disability and impairment are not things that we can avoid. It’s just part of being human. I think if we’re lucky enough to grow old, we are going to experience disability. When we think of disability, we tend to focus on physical disability and really there is a whole range of experiences that include sensory, mental health, cognitive, emotional, episodic disabilities. So we need to be really mindful that when we can, to be prepared, to be in a proactive mindset.
When I’ve done this work in the past, sometimes I have encountered defensiveness or resistance when working with organizations maybe because there’s a level of embarrassment or fear of looking bad, and sometimes that can come from not having set the bar far enough or that there is a lack of response because people have remained silent on the issue. So I think what’s really important is for organizations to say, “Yeah, you know what, we have gaps that exist.” In order for real change to occur, we need to narrow those gaps so that change can be sustainable and meaningful.
We need to also think about this work as always in progress, that it’s not ever going to be done because when we stop trying, that’s when change also stops being a possibility. So needs of people that you’re working with, change and access changes, and we need to be responsive to those changes. Sree?
Sree Nallamothu: I’d like to share one of my early “aha” moments in doing this work, and that was when you spoke at our retreat in 2019, Fran.
Shifting from individual to environment
It was a significant shift in my thinking, moving from thinking about disability as an individual’s issue and the thinking about it as an environmental one. When we make it about the environment, it becomes about all of us. I think the first two years of COVID-19 taught us what’s possible when we focus on the environment as the issue because it changed the way we showed up for each other, the way we worked, what we prioritized.
So when I think about it, how do we make this shift? For me, I think remembering that our values are a big part of this work really helps. We all have values and mission statements for our organizations. If we ground ourselves in that and in those values, then we can find our way back when we feel lost in the work. Also, if we make it about values and our mission, then we’re all accountable and it’s not relying on the goodness of anyone’s heart or on someone being nice.
2. Being nice ≠ inclusion
A friend recently shared this amazing teaching with me. It comes from Akaya Windwood around the difference between being nice and being kind, how niceness is about ourselves, making ourselves feel good, and kindness, which comes from the word kin or kindred, is about us in relation to each other. So again, moving from the individual to outside of ourselves. A while back I was at this event and sitting at a table with someone who was blind and I offered to get them a plate of food, which I thought was nice and it made me feel good to do, but then afterwards she told me what wouldn’t have been kind. The kind thing to have done would’ve been to include her in the whole experience by describing interesting dynamics that I observed at the table: people’s expressions when they were saying certain things; who’s saying what; all of those things. This brings us to the next idea that we wanted to share with you, inclusion isn’t about being nice.
Fran Odette: We need to move beyond niceties towards purposeful and creative practices that actually challenge the charity narrative around disability. So along with environmental barriers, I think it’s important for us to realize that environmental barriers are also constructed by attitudinal barriers.
Better accessibility creates greater inclusion for all
So we can’t just put a ramp in and say, “Well, now, people with disabilities can come into our organization.” It’s more than that. A ramp isn’t an indicator that people are going to feel safe, feel heard, and also seen. When I think about safety, I’m thinking about those of us who come in not feeling bad or feeling threatened by asking for what we need or any of us, or feeling grateful that our needs were met. I think in this culture there is such stigma around asking for support and asking for “help.” We need to normalize that people might need something and it’s their right to be able to ask for it and it’s not a favour when they get it.
Providing access is about meeting the needs of disabled people, but it’s also about creating greater inclusion for everyone. The request that I sometimes have when I’m in a group setting tends to be seen as an accommodation versus the idea that maybe it’s creating better access and inclusion for everyone.
When I am in a space, maybe online, in Zoom or in a physical space, I am someone who’s hard of hearing. Sometimes when there is a lot of chatter or crosstalk, I may not know who’s talking and I find it really difficult when people do talk over each other. So what I ask at the beginning of a meeting is please speak one person at a time, to speak up and also to look or direct your comments in my direction. Therefore, I’m actually able to take in what people are saying and it also helps me, but I think it also slows the conversation down for everyone.
When we do this, there is a sense of intentionality that comes from this request that I’m actually going to listen to you. If we slow down things for everyone, everyone benefits. So it’s like that ramp idea. It’s not just for someone who’s using a mobility device, but it could also mean access for someone who’s using a stroller or someone making a delivery. It could also mean the difference for a co-worker who may have had an accident or injury and may now be able to come into work because the ramp exists, whereas before there were a flight of stairs, which meant that they had to take time-off and maybe try and work from home.
Sree Nallamothu: A great place to start looking at addressing some of these attitudinal barriers is HR. So what are some of the practices we can change right away just by asking ourselves, “Why do we do this? Can we do it differently?” One thing that kept coming up for us in the conversations we were holding in our spaces was the idea or the requirement in place around doctor’s notes, that you need a doctor’s note or a diagnosis to get an accommodation and the idea that people have to prove themselves. It also costs people time and money to get these notes that are often not covered by the organization. This practice of needing documentation is partly led by suspicion and mistrust.
So we invite the question, what would this policy and practice look like if we trusted people to know what they need? Again, a good place to start is to remind ourselves of our organizational values and mission. Have your values and mission statement at your side when you review your policies. Are your values reflected in your workplace policies?
3. Recognize language has impact
Identify ableist language in our policies and how that language influences ableist attitudes in our workplace. Beyond just policies, we also need to think about how ableist language shows up in our everyday interactions with each other, which takes us to the next idea, recognize that language has impact.
Fran Odette: I think it’s really important in change work is to recognize and disrupt ableist language and to make an intentional shift towards inclusive and respectful communication. I think that for many of us, ableist language has been so part of our everyday communication that we don’t even think about it. We might say the words like, “I had a ‘crazy day,’ ” and we can come up with other terms. Instead of using the word lame, we could say ‘not cool.’
Why are we coming up with using language that has historically been used to describe the experiences of disabled people in negative and harmful ways as a way of adding a flavour to our conversation? It perpetuates the idea that disability and impairment are bad.
When I hear the word physically-challenged or differently-abled, I want to be honest, folks, I’d much rather that you say disabled, disability or impairment because really what that suggests to me is that the speaker is actually uncomfortable with the words disability and impairment and see them as bad things.
I know it’s hard work, I really do, but I think that part of our work starts with the everyday connection that we make with people. When we see it or hear it from our colleagues, how do we start to disrupt it and how do we start doing this sooner than later?
Sree Nallamothu: You know that saying, “Practice makes progress,” so that’s how we do it. There are no shortcuts, but we do have a few considerations that we’re working within our own practice that might be helpful that we wanted to share. One, make space to sit with questions rather than rush to solutions. These questions are our most important tools for now. They are our guide and they keep the work present. Two, prioritize this work. We just have to make an intentional decision to do so because this is a first step to culture change. It demonstrates an intention to change something. Three, not doing more harm in our learning. We need to recognize labour, who’s holding it, who’s not, and to be mindful of our moments of growth and how they can be at the expense of others if we’re not careful.
We need to be okay with getting it wrong. When you fail is when you learn, and always have a repair practice in place. It’s something that could be as simple as, “I’m sorry, it won’t happen again,” and to realize that accessibility is about all of us, meaning both our whole self and also who we are collectively. Finally, to use an intersectional lens. Bless Kimberlé Crenshaw for this term. We can’t think of this as another bucket of work to add on, but we need to see it as how it’s interrelated identities that mutually shape the issues that we’re all trying to address. This takes us to our next idea, embrace intersectionality.
4. Embrace intersectionality
Fran Odette: Often those of us that are doing anti-oppression work need to bring that lens to also thinking about disability. So disability is not this monolithic experience. Oftentimes though, it is left out or an afterthought in EDI work. Like all of us, disabled people are not single issues. Disability principles or disability justice principles are not just for disabled folks, but really can be integrated into all of our work, like examples around interdependence.
We’re not ships that are out in the sea on our own. We all at one time need to ask for support from one another, the ideas of leadership from those of us who are most impacted by oppression and discrimination. In the disability justice movement, I think it’s really important that it really demands that the disability rights movement has us think differently about intersectionality because historically it was a movement, the disability rights movement led by white cisgender oftentimes working men with disabilities, and those voices of BIPOC, queer, trans, sick and disabled people were not at the table.
Patty Burns and Stacy Milburn and Mia Mingus are some of the founding people that had us really think about social justice in disability justice work as an intersectional perspective and realizing that in their own work around social justice disabled people were not at the table. Also in disability rights work, BIPOC, and trans folks’ voices were left out of the equation. So we’re still grappling with that in many settings that we’re not asked to be at the table around other kinds of collective work.
Sree Nallamothu: I love that you shared some of those principles. The two that stand out for me are interdependence and collective care, and these are incredible gifts because they teach us to normalize needs and they offer us ways to practice care. This benefits everybody because it allows us all the grace to be human and I think this is the key to transforming our workplaces. I think it’s really important to bring disability into the conversation. Mention accessibility every time you talk about EDI work. Add that A to EDI or DEI or whatever acronym that you’re using. It’s really important. Finally, we’re working in a capitalist system, which means we can’t talk about equity without talking about economics.
5. Make accessibility a core budget line
So the next and final idea is make a core budget line. This ensures that change can be sustainable and that it goes beyond the bare minimum. If we make it a core budget line, it becomes embedded in the organization. We need to include it in all of our grant asks and advocate to funders for the need if there’s resistance. Also, leadership has to lead and they have to do this by doing the learning themselves so they can model it, by setting expectations and by resourcing it. Resourcing it includes time. So paying for trainings is important, but also giving staff time to reflect on their learnings from the trainings so that they can figure out how they can incorporate those learnings into their work.
Fran Odette: This idea of time and resources sometimes bumps up against the fact that we are living in a time that is somewhat challenging for all of us that are providing some kind of care work in our agencies, and that expects us to do culture change and to do EDI work without the resources.
I also though want you to think about this idea of what it means to be truly committed to inclusion, and that means access is part of all of your programming. So you’re thinking about access not just for service users, but for your employees, your co-workers, so that you’re not pulling money out of one program area to meet the access needs of participants in another program and that you’re always shifting and having to make up for different budget lines. Have access be a consistent budget line in all of your asks and also in your core budget.
One way we can start doing some of this work and resourcing right away is thinking about captioning. So captioning is something that I ask all the time that it be a regular practice at events and meetings. Not only helps me, but it also really creates greater inclusion for people that are also at the same meeting. Subtitles on videos, having audio description embedded in promotional materials is also a way that we provide greater inclusion. Another way is really thinking about disability representation in leadership positions. That includes having people who are disabled who are part of your board, who are also part of senior management.
When you are thinking about access, think beyond the physical only, but think about dietary accommodations or access. Thinking about access needs allows us to normalize those conversations and people will start to know that they have needs and they can also ask for those needs to be hopefully met. The other thing is think about hiring more disabled people and think about how your outreach and promotion of your jobs may inadvertently exclude people and bring in people that want to work and can work. I know that we don’t have endless budgets, but we also can’t use that as reason not to start. Sree, any last thoughts?
Sree Nallamothu: No, I think that’s a perfect ending.
Questions from the audience
Elizabeth McIsaac: So much there. Thank you so much. Lots of questions. We got some from the audience in advance as well. So I’m going to start with language because there’s been a number of comments about language, understanding the meaning and recognizing that language evolves. You’ve talked about that and you talked about using the language of disability.
What if you’ve been told not to use the term “disabled”?
One person has said they’ve been told not to use the term disabled or disability or impairment, but to use differently abled, and these are by individuals and spokespersons for people with disabilities. So how do we navigate this recognizing that it’s an evolving thing?
Fran Odette: I’ll give it a crack, if I can. I mean, this is a really important conversation and I also think that if we are really coming from a place of social justice, it also means that we need to honour people’s agency around how they want to be identified. I sometimes feel like when we are using euphemisms to describe disability and impairment, we are suggesting that disability is a bad thing. I can’t separate disability from who I am. It does influence my worldview and not in a bad way. I think that when we start coming up with things that feel more palatable for us rather than for that person that we’re talking to, we’re also engaging in some invisibility and erasure of who they are.
When in doubt, ask folks. That’s all I’m saying. You don’t have to have the answers, but I think disability is a socio-political experience and we can start making change even in our day-to-day conversations.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I think the don’t-be-afraid-to-ask is so important because it opens the dialogue and it’s humbling to say, “I don’t know.” It restores the balance in some cases. Language is powerful.
What are your thoughts on “disability management”?
One person says, “I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of occupational health and some of the language used in that discipline. What are your thoughts on the terms and practice of ‘disability management?’ Do you have any insights for human resource departments in this space?”
Fran Odette: Oh, Sree, do you have any thoughts on it? I have some thoughts.
Sree Nallamothu: I like to hear what you’ll say. I mean, I think there’s something around the term management. Again, that picks up on stuff that you shared earlier. There are a lot of assumptions that we make.
I don’t know if I’m using this right, but it’s pathologizing people’s situations when that’s not necessarily the case. So anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts, Fran.
Fran Odette: I agree with what you’re saying. I think also there is a history to many disabled people’s experiences around needing to be managed, needing to have other people impose what they think is best for us and not seeing us as being the experts of our own lived experience. So I do have a little bit of a response to the word disability management as if it’s something that needs to be managed and I want to say why.
How can I ask for help without explaining my invisible disability every time?
Elizabeth McIsaac: Fran, you said you speak out and say, “This is what I need in a meeting. I need you to speak one at a time. I need you to speak toward me.” One person asks, “As a person with an invisible disability, I find it hard to ask for help because I find I have to explain my disability every time. Do you have suggestions on ways to ask for help or accommodation that may be needed without having to do that, without having to go through that process?”
Fran Odette: I think it’s a really great question and I don’t have a solution. But it is more difficult for folks who do have invisible disabilities because of the stigma that is still surrounding what it means to be disabled and to be perceived through a lens that tends to see many folks with disabilities through a deficit perspective. So it can be really risky to say, “This is what I need.” You don’t need to say why, but you can ask for what you need. Under the Human Rights Code, people aren’t necessarily supposed to ask why you need it.
I think that there is also a way that we get to shift this idea of accommodation only being for disabled people and really challenge ways of thinking around access and inclusion and how that opens up the doors and experiences of inclusion for so many more people. It can feel very isolating to be the only one doing this work, and that’s why Sree and I really believe that working collectively, thinking about allyship when your experience is not that of the other person can be huge, can really reduce the isolation and the feelings of aloneness in doing this work.
Sree Nallamothu: I think the practice. When we do it together, it’s the practice of creating. People have different names for it, but we think of it as community guidelines, as conveners, as people pulling, organizing these meetings. To take the time at the beginning of every meeting that you have to set some guidelines that respect the different ways or different needs that people might have in terms of the way you are going to choose to communicate in this space. A lot of that can be informed by needs that people have expressed without being about the individual. Let’s make it about all of us and let’s all agree to these terms of communication.
Fran Odette: I want to add just one more thing to what Sree is saying. When Sree and I do our work, I feel like Sree is a co-conspirator with me and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I think that our efforts are about resistance. It is resistance to being erased and made invisible. When I have someone alongside who is supporting that work, I feel like that’s also a powerful statement.
How can employers create safe spaces?
Elizabeth McIsaac: There’s another layer to this question, but I think you’ve already addressed it, but in case you want to add anything further, and this came in before the presentation. The person asks, “How can employers create a truly safe, non-judgemental, low-risk space for employees to speak their truth?” I mean, I think you’ve dealt with some of that, but are there particular examples of practices that create that kind of safety?
Fran Odette: Sree, what do you think?
Sree Nallamothu: All of our work is rooted in relationship building and that relationship building started like six, seven years ago with a lot of intentionality six, seven years ago, thinking about relationship building as a practice. Again, there’s no shortcut to this. If you want to make people feel heard and safe and trust each other, you have to build relationships and spaces where those relationships can happen to make that possible. To me, I can’t think of any other way, but I think you can put some better practices in place that speak to just relationship-building techniques, trust-building. There’s a lot of stuff out there about ways we can practice that with each other. Again, that’s just that too, we get better the more we do it.
How can a workplace support people with neurodivergence?
Elizabeth McIsaac: One of the difficult edges sometimes of a disability in the workplace is neurodivergence or the unseen. We have a few questions on how to deal with that better and support people who are challenged by that in the workplace because often it’s just seen as a personality thing as opposed to a very real issue that they struggle with or work with or work through on a daily basis. Is there a way of building that also, or is it the same principles? I think the answer will be the same principles we’ve been talking about. But because it’s less identifiable or obvious sometimes, are there any particular elements to that?
Fran Odette: I have some thoughts. Again, it’s not a solution, but ask the person, “What do you need in order for this to work?” Because no two autistic people are the same and they are going to have different needs. So I think our work is to think about how we can be proactive, but also recognize that we don’t want to create a cookie-cutter approach to responding to people’s needs either. It’s really interesting that this idea of there being some sort of personality piece because I think that there are ideas of what is a good worker. What does that look like? How is a good worker performing? I think we need to be open to thinking differently about this idea of productivity and challenge ideas of capitalism and consumerism because for too long, disabled people have been brushed to the side because they are seen as not performing or conforming to a very, very narrow idea of what it means to produce or be valued.
Sree Nallamothu: I have two teenagers and I look at the ways in which they all communicate with each other, within the schools now with each other, like their friend groups. Nobody shies away from talking about their medication or different accommodations that they’re going to ask during exam week. The lesson for me is just that normalizing of how we all are different, right? We all come to our work or our responsibilities in different ways. We perform our responsibilities in different ways, but to me it’s just about being open and honest and the judgment goes away because you normalize it.
I think we can set and model that with each other. We can practice that with each other to be able to say these things that we’re too nice to say, or things that make us a little uncomfortable or, “How do I say this?” I think asking is also a practice of humility too. Because in asking, part of the hesitation, I am guessing, is in “Oh, I don’t want to seem like I don’t know or embarrass myself because I use the wrong words or ask the wrong thing.” I think it’s just taking those risks.
Fran Odette: The person that is in front of you who has the experience of disability has had to navigate the world much longer than you have had to interact with them. This is just a snapshot of all the things that they have already learned to navigate and might have bumped up against in terms of the barriers, but how have they had to adapt unfortunately. We are requiring people to adapt rather than, “Okay. Let me work with you in a way that is going to ask me as a neurotypical person to stretch myself rather than asking you, the person who is living with the experience of disability, to adapt to my ways of being.” I think that’s also part of this work.
What if I am the only disability advocate at my workplace?
Elizabeth McIsaac: Someone asks, someone who is living with a disability, “How do we bring accessibility to a workplace without being tasked with being the only disability advocate?” Fran, you’re nodding your head yes. What is your advice on boundary setting as a person living with a disability in that context?
Fran Odette: Oh, I have lots to say about this one, but I think that in any EDI work, we cannot make that one person the person that is the spokesperson. It is all of our responsibility. When I’m no longer at an organization, I bring that historical knowledge with me and now there’s this void when really it’s all of our responsibilities to be more aware and be more thoughtful and do the learning so that when someone leaves that there isn’t a gap now in that knowledge. It isn’t the disabled person honestly that should be doing the educating. I think it really is on all of us to be learning and being able to recognize when we don’t know and that it’s okay, we don’t know, but don’t make that person the person that is your educator.
Sree Nallamothu: 100%, and I appreciate that it’s across the board with all of our anti-oppression work. I think the mistake is sometimes thinking of centering as putting that person in their story in the center and the idea of giving voice to people is requiring them to share that part of themselves, which is that’s not about the work. The work is about all of us and that’s what we need to center when we think about centering.
What special considerations should be given to accessibility for remote work?
Elizabeth McIsaac: When we started, you talked about how things are always changing. One of the big changes in the workplace has been remote workplaces, working from home. I’m still seeing many, many people online, so there’s a lot of different work experiences of this audience. What are your thoughts? Are there special considerations around this about how this is navigated in a work from home or remote work environment? Did anything come through in your work on this?
Fran Odette: I just want to share a little bit of a moment with you. Before COVID and before we found ourselves really shifting what work looked like, disabled people already had a handle on it. We already knew because of the fact that many of us were not able to participate in the physical space because it wasn’t accessible or other considerations that made being in the physical space difficult or impossible. So we already had this figured out and I think that a consideration is that it can actually be quite liberating to be able to have a choice, especially for folks that are having to do care-minding of a family member or a child, to not feel like, “I have to come in in order to be seen as productive,” because you can still be productive remotely. I think it is on the organization to be really thinking about that critically to make sure that people aren’t left behind because why is being in-person an indicator that you’re productive?
Sree Nallamothu: Right. Fran, one of the things I think that’s also come up in our conversations has been around talking about… The question’s really is the work getting done, not how is it getting done, right? That’s always stayed with me. If we just think about it in that way, I think that that can help answer some of these questions.
Fran Odette: I also think it goes back to trust. Do we trust our workers? Do we trust the people that are not physically here that they’re doing the work?
What if the organization think it’s doing accessibility right, but you don’t experience it that way?
Elizabeth McIsaac: Absolutely. There’s a number of questions around the theme of resistance as you might expect. So just to start broadly, when you have an organization that thinks it’s got the right values, that thinks it’s doing it all right, but where the people that work there don’t experience it that way, where do you start? How do you bring that forward? How do you disrupt that sense of “We’ve got it”?
Sree Nallamothu: I think we’re able to do it within our space at Toronto Neighbourhood Centres, because I think a big part of it is we’re working in an inter-agency space, right? So when we convene, folks are coming together. They’re not necessarily at their agencies, right? They’re coming together and working with folks at lots of different agencies, and there’s something about that that helps people build their muscles maybe in having these conversations.
What I see happening is if we’re able to do it in this safer space and in this inter-agency space, there’s a lot that happens there that I think folks then start to feel maybe a little bit more confident or a little bit of a stronger muscle to take back and test out at their own agencies.
But I think so much of that honestly is just calling it out. I don’t have an answer for that because I think that that’s something people need to navigate. What kind of risks does that put you in?
But what I do want to say is I see that. I want to validate that that is true and that exists and that it’s not something people are imagining or making up. It’s very real, and I think it’s especially hard for folks who are doing anti-oppression work. This is where I think leadership is in such a wonderful position to really… The work that they can do is to, I don’t know, address that question and to model and to be part of the learning, part of the training and be involved in it. It can’t just happen at one level of the organization. Fran?
Fran Odette: I guess I have another way of also thinking about that. It goes back to our last good idea around time and resources and I think that it’s quite powerful for those of us who live with disability and who are always having to advocate for ourselves to be in a space with other people and to really not feel so alone, like other marginalized communities, to find strength in being in a space where you get to also embrace and embody who you are in a different way without having to hide it or having to make it feel or be presented as not as a big problem.
“It’s okay, I got it covered. You don’t need to accommodate me because if you accommodate me, somehow now I’m overly visible.” It can feel very, very lonely for those of us that are doing this work and always having to bring it back to how am I going to do this work in the ways that is expected of me without the support that I need to have to do that? It’s a hard ask.
Is there a role for unions to build accessibility into the collective agreement?
Elizabeth McIsaac: That’s where it comes back to leadership as you were talking, that the leadership take it on because there are also some questions predictably about how do you get this in the budget, where it’s not there. One person asks, “Is there a role for unions in building this into the collective agreement?” I think I know your answer, but I’m still going to put it out there. But who are the other allies, I guess, within a work environment that need to be on board as champions and partners in pushing this forward?
Fran Odette: I would say absolutely the union, for sure. I think many disabled people often don’t feel supported by their union because of the fact that maybe it’s part-time work, it’s precarious work, and maybe we aren’t going to have that kind of representation because we don’t fit under the union parametres of who they will support and who they won’t. But I also think the union may not always have knowledge about how to do this work, and sometimes people can be quite fearful of going to the union in terms of what that might mean in the long term. But I think that there is opportunity for us to really think about collective work rather than us being siloed into our identities or perceived identities that there’s lots more work that can happen around cross-knowledge sharing.
Sree Nallamothu: Yeah. I think back to the idea of collective work, I think when we think about conversations that we’re hosting, trainings that we’re having, it needs to be available to everyone working at an organization because I think that’s where we find our allies when we bring everyone into the work together, right?
How can I promote accessibility to funders?
Elizabeth McIsaac: There are so many questions unanswered in the Q&A box. We have about three minutes left, so I’m just going to finish with continuing up the resistance chain. But I think this is important, and I’m going to ask it and someone asked the question, “But I’m the funder in the room. What are some good ways to drive the conversation about accessibility with funders who aren’t necessarily super familiar with disability activism? How does it get built into put on their radar?”
Fran Odette: I can share very quickly an experience that I had many, many years ago when I was doing anti-violence work. We were a place that offered student placements, and so occasionally we would have deaf students come in to our agency, but there was no money allocated for funding to be able to have ASL interpreters. The only way that the placement was able to fulfill that was to have an interpreter come in once a week and we said, “No, this has to be when this student is in, even if they aren’t part of a staff meeting.” We can’t expect someone to sit in the corner and not have any engagement with hearing staff because hearing staff don’t know ASL. So I think that that is also thinking about funding to go back to funders and say, “Look, if we really are going to be making social change work, be sustainable. We have to recognize that there are disabled people that are part of all of these communities that you are funding. We can’t take money from one budget line to be able to provide access. We need to have that as a separate line.”
Elizabeth McIsaac: Thank you to both of you that has incredibly rich, thoughtful and I think thought-provoking. I for one am walking away with more than five good ideas in my head. So thank you for your time and generosity of thought and your leadership on this work. It’s so important and so valued.