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It's Time Canadians Started Practicing Systemic Inclusion

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Sometimes you don't know whether laugh or cry. Last week, Toronto city planners called a public meeting to discuss accessible and affordable public housing.

Where was the meeting scheduled to take place? In a legion hall that can only be reached by climbing a staircase.

What did they do next? They moved down the street to a café. A café where the washrooms were in the basement -- down a long flight of stairs.

Come on, folks! This is 2016 -- nearly 2017. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is ten years old. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be 70 years old in two years. What are we all waiting for?

Even a few minutes of putting oneself in another person's shoes (or wheelchair) could make a big difference.

We need to start thinking in truly inclusive ways. This means we need to acknowledge that systemic discrimination is all around us. Each of us needs to understand that, while it may not be our fault, it IS our problem and our responsibility. The scheduling of that meeting was a fine example of systemic discrimination.

It is not always easy to understand or recognize systemic discrimination. This is because it is rarely deliberate or caused by malice. I am confident that no one in the city's planning office went out to find an inaccessible meeting place -- or two. They just didn't think.

It reminds me of stories about office parties held in restaurants that specialize in barbecue pork ribs when the office has Jewish and Muslim staff members. No one intended to exclude their colleagues. They just didn't take the time to think about the effect their restaurant choice would have on people whose lives were different from their own.

wheelchair stairs
(Photo: MRCMOS VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Even a few minutes of putting oneself in another person's shoes (or wheelchair) could make a big difference. Accessibility is a right. Just by being born we all have human rights. We don't need to do or be anything special. Equality is -- or should be -- ours, just because we exist.

So here is a new way to think that might help the city planners and the rest of us. Some of us have disabilities. And the rest of us don't have disabilities YET. People with disabilities are not "the other." They are all of us. Even if we are perfectly healthy and able-bodied today, not one of us can guarantee what our lives will be like in the future. Doesn't it simply make sense to set up our institutions, indeed our lives, to anticipate changes that very well could, in fact WILL, take place?

Are you renovating or building a new facility? Put grab bars in the washrooms and make the doors wide enough for mobility devices! Don't forget ramps that comply with the needs of wheelchair users -- your customers and clients with children in strollers will thank you, too.

Let's get rid of systemic discrimination. We need to reach for systemic inclusion.

Public transit? Everyone benefits when the stops are announced and visibly displayed in every vehicle. I can hear today -- but tomorrow? And my vision is deteriorating, too. And there are benefits to many of us -- children and newcomers travelling on public vehicles whose literacy and familiarity with their city is daily assisted by these announcements and signs.

Are you putting up signage in a museum or gallery? Braille, talking labels and audio guides make a difference to many people, not just those who are currently disabled.

I am asking everyone to think in a new way. Let's get rid of systemic discrimination. We need to reach for systemic inclusion. Only then will we be able to achieve the equality that we are all guaranteed.

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