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Everyone to the table: Ryerson panel explores advancing disability rights

Montreal - Wednesday, May 18, 2022

by Randy Pinsky

In working towards a more inclusive Canada, who should decide how funds are prioritized and allocated? Does philanthropy come from a charitable or an empowering mindset? And are those directly implicated involved in the decision-making process? 

Ryerson University’s Advancing Disability Rights panel discussed these issues and more on January 31 as part of the Generous Futures series sponsored by TD Bank Group.

Panelists included disability activist and feminist educator Fran Odette; motivational speaker Taylor Lindsay-Noel; and former Canadian senator Vim Kochhar. A member of the national Canadian gymnastics team, Lindsay-Noel became paralyzed from the neck down due to a fall from the high bar in 2008. As a young Black entrepreneur, she is the owner of Cup of Té, which was recently added to Oprah Winfrey’s Favorite Things 2020 List. Kochhar is a longtime advocate for disability rights and the founder, chair and CEO of the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons. 

Moderator Esther Ignagni, director of Ryerson’s School of Disability Studies and herself blind, observed that although disabled people make up 22 percent of Canadians, they experience numerous obstacles in work, education and healthcare.

One of the main points put forth by the panelists was the need to include those not always invited to the decision-making table. Rather than having specialists and caregivers speak on their behalf, corporate boards and organizations are realizing the value of firsthand knowledge. 

"Framing our work through a disability justice lens is not just about responding to situations and addressing access to services,” commented Odette. “It's also a struggle to start to bring disability into the centre of how we understand the world, as an opportunity to reimagine it and work towards social transformation.”

As noted by Ignagni, “disability touches us all.” Whether it is from birth, from age or from accident, the panel concurred that everyone benefits from efforts to make the world more accessible and just. 

In order to promote this shift in narrative, Kochhar is dedicated to establishing bursaries for students with disabilities in all the major Canadian universities. He has also been at the forefront of promoting Paralympic athletes and getting Paralympic medals to be viewed as equal to their Olympic counterparts. 

Through leading a “Why Not” marathon, he successfully secured permanent government funding and greater media attention for para-athletes. In recognition of his efforts, Kochhar was invited to be a torch bearer at the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver. 

“By advancing disability rights, you are uplifting an entire society of people,” observed Lindsay-Noel. Odette agreed, concluding, “Every time we [engage in] projects that are disability-led and disability-centred, we are creating opportunities for people with disabilities to flex our power – not in spite of our disability, but because of [it].”