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Seeking inclusion for those with intellectual disabilities

Inclusion BC annual conference held in Kelowna.

One solitary voice calling for change can truly make a difference, says a leading Canadian human rights activist.

Sally Armstrong says marginalized people around the world are using their own voice, aided by the influence of social media, to tell their story, to incite global change for how women, young girls and those with developmental disabilities are treated.

“Change used to come from political will and public will. The public would hold marches and circulate petitions on a given issue to draw the attention of and put pressure on politicians to sign that legislative paper needed to bring change,” Armstrong explained.

“Today, I see the work of personal will being far more powerful than those other two. That person who stands up and says this is not okay with me, or you can do better, or I don’t approve of what’s happening here, is driving the bus for change.”

Armstrong offered her insights from a career in journalism advocating for the rights of women and girls around the world, what she called a growing grassroots movement for inclusion, as a keynote speaker at the recent Inclusion BC annual conference titled “Rise Up!” in Kelowna, partnering with the Pathways Abilities Society.

Nicky Waring, a convention participant from Vancouver, promoting her Ready! Relate Education program which offers sexual health and relationship education for all learners. Photo: Barry Gerding/Black Press
Armstrong is a former member of the International Women’s Commission at the United Nations and a recipient of the Order of Canada.

The convention attracted more than 600 delegates from across B.C. gathered together to talk about improving housing, employment, education and supports for people with intellectual disabilities and their families.

“In big and small communities across this province, families and local groups are contributing to the global movement for inclusion. By gathering and learning form our successes and failures, we an rise up together to meet challenges and seize new opportunities,” said Jackie Carpenter, Inclusion BC president and parent of a son with autism.

In her keynote speech, Armstrong cited examples of others who stood up as lone voices calling for change, sometimes placing their lives at risk, and generating a groundswell of support.

She told the story of 160 teenage girls from a village in Kenya who banded together to sue their government for not adequately protecting them, and won a landmark decision in international court.

“That all started with one of those girls, a 12 year-old named Millie, standing up at a village meeting held to talk about building a school, and saying she was unable to continue her education as she was pregnant because she was raped and pointing to the man in the audience who raped her,” Armstrong said.

With the court decision came the legacy creation of the Justice Club, a program to educate people in Kenya about the consequences of rape, a crime often overlooked in African countries and one local police are often not trained to investigate.

Armstrong cited the role taken on by the Vancouver Police Department to train and educate Kenyan police on how to investigate sexual crimes, and master business program students at the University of Toronto who helped the Kenyan girls develop the Justice Club concept into a public education program.

She talked about Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistan girl who refused to accept a Taliban edict that no girls attend school after age 15 because she wanted to further her education.

Yousafzai was subsequently shot in the head but survived, and her story sparked a worldwide movement of support for girls like her to pursue their education.

“Malala got there not because of public pressure or political will, she got there because she stood up and said, ‘I want to go to school,’ bringing global attention and support to her own story.”

Display booth for the Pathway Abilities Society, a co-presenter of the Inclusion BC annual conference held in Kelowna. Photo: Barry Gerding/Black Press
Armstrong encouraged Inclusion B.C. and other organizations and individuals to tell their personal stories about roadblocks placed in the way of people with intellectual or physical disabilities who are marginalized from living a full life, to be able to work, get an education or find affordable housing.

“Change is not going to happen because of what is fair or needed. It will change when people get involved, share their stories and present the real facts. And those people are you,” she said to her audience.

“It is time to ratchet up the call to action.”

Cody Simmons, a convention delegate from Castlegar, is called a champion of change in his community for writing a book about his life and getting a school and college education, not being held back by his own development disabilities.

“Having spent 32 years on this earth, my philosophy is if you dream it, you can achieve it,” said Simmons.

“I want to raise awareness about people with developmental diverse disabilities and let them know them know they have a voice and they have dreams, no matter big or small, they can achieve.”

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Journalist and women’s rights advocate Sally Armstrong (right) was a keynote speaker at the Inclusion BC annual convention in Kelowna. Photo: Barry Gerding/Black Press

Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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