As Canadians we pride ourselves on our commitment to inclusion and diversity. Yet, when it comes to disabilities, this pride doesn't match reality. Put simply – rather than inclusion, the every day experience of many Canadians with disabilities is stigma, prejudice, and even fear.
If we truly want Canada to be the best place for kids to grow up, to be a country for children to thrive in, to be a country where children's well-being is a given and their good health is optimized, it is imperative to foster an inclusive society where kids of all abilities have equal opportunities.
There are at least 400,000 children and youth with a disability in Canada. Sobering statistics show that 25 per cent of kids with disabilities have unmet educational needs; 24 per cent live in poverty; over half have zero or only one close friend; and they are two to three times more likely to be bullied. Why?
Kids with disabilities are often underrepresented in areas that contribute to civil society and a vibrant economy and rich cultural life. For instance, Jadine – a 17-year-old girl living with cerebral palsy and who uses a wheelchair for mobility – is already an aspiring poet and might just be Canada's next Maya Angelou. And Sageth – a university student who also has cerebral palsy – has two internships under his belt and hopes that he will have an opportunity to use his interest in data management in the innovation economy. Like other young Canadians they are vital to the fabric of a diverse and inclusive society, but experience and data suggest that they aren't likely to have equality of opportunity as compared to their typically developing peers.
Our recent Review and Analysis of the Impact of Stigma Facing People With Disabilities Across Canada showed that major issues and barriers in employment, friendship, education, and health care, prevent kids with disabilities – who become adults with disabilities – from participating fully in society. Stigma limits them too. We don't realize it, but it also limits us – by missing out on the clear strength of an inclusive and equitable society that includes young Canadians with disabilities.
So when I was asked what would make Canada the best place to live in the world, I wanted to know what kids and youth with disabilities themselves would answer. Was anyone asking them? Was anyone listening?
Because I work with kids and youth with disabilities every day, I'm privileged to have access to their ideas and opinions. What I hear time and time again is that what is truly disabling are the attitudes and environments that don't allow everyone equality of opportunity.
This must change.
When we open our minds, speech affected by disability is just another way of communicating, a wheelchair becomes a great way to get around and a learning disability just means that a student does things differently to achieve their unique goals. And this is what we need – an attitudinal shift in how we see, define, and accept disability – and curiosity, learning, and breaking down stigma are some of the ways we can get there.
What would make Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up is accepting the unaccepted, including the excluded, and making visible the unseen. It starts with listening – listening to the voices of kids themselves and what they have to say, and giving them the opportunity to be valued for who they are and who they can be.
When you ask kids what they want, when you build a charter of Canadian children's rights and create an action plan informed by the lives and voices of children with disabilities, you build the opportunities for the life that every child deserves.
Julia Hanigsberg is president and CEO of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Canada's largest paediatric rehabilitation hospital and an academic health science centre fully affiliated with the University of Toronto. Each year Holland Bloorview serves 7,500 children and youth with disabilities and complex medical needs spanning more than 1000 diagnoses. Holland Bloorview's vision is "The most meaningful and healthy futures for all children, youth and families."