by Kate Higginson, CFICE Communications Research Assistant

A grouping of pentagons all containing different forms of communication (e.g. an eye for visual, an ear for hearing, hands doing sign language, etc.).The last time your community-campus engagement (CCE) project held a meeting, was there a push button on the meeting room door so a participant in a wheelchair could access the room? What about a sign language interpreter, or someone available to take notes for the member with an intellectual disability? After the meeting, did you share your meeting notes in a format easily interpreted by an assisted reading device? Our bet is probably no, and not because your project is inconsiderate, but simply because, in our current culture, thinking about all forms of accessibility isn’t yet a priority. But the Government of Canada has been working to help change this culture and happily, some local institutions are following suit.

Keep reading to find out what is changing and what YOU can do in your CCE work to help.

Canadian Legislation to Increase Opportunity for Persons with Disabilities

Throughout 2016, the Canadian Government, under the leadership of the Minister of Sport and People with Disabilities, consulted Canadians with disabilities in order to better understand the challenges they faced living with a disability in Canada. What they heard loud and clear was that accessible employment was a number one barrier.

As a result, a bill was tabled in June 2018 with the goal of combating the unemployment rate of Canadians with disabilities (which is disproportionately high compared to Canadians without disabilities). The bill focuses largely on the removal of barriers, which they define as: “Anything physical, architectural, technological or attitudinal, anything that is based on information or communications or anything that is the result of a policy or practice – that hinders the full and equal participation in society of persons with a physical, mental, intellectual, learning, communication or sensory impairment or a functional limitation.”

This bill is an important step forward in helping to change society’s attitudes and approaches toward hiring people with disabilities.

Canada's centre block parliament building.

Ottawa’s Post-Secondary Institutions Collaborate to create the David C. Onley Initiative for Employment and Enterprise Development

Inspired by the national legislation, the David C. Onley Initiative for Employment and Enterprise Development is an example of a local initiative that researches and creates pathways to support post-secondary students with disabilities. The initiative is named after David Onley, who was Ontario’s first lieutenant-governor with a disability. During his time as lieutenant-general (2007-2014), he used his position to start the conversation about barriers that Ontarians living with disabilities face.

With a five-million-dollar budget and a two-year timeline, the David C. Onley Initiative hopes to assist students with disabilities find employment after graduation. Similar to our national issue, even students who have graduated from post-secondary institutions in Ottawa are less likely to gain employment following the completion of their studies.

A group of silhouetted individuals of all shapes, sizes, and abilities.

The David C. Onley initiative comes from a partnership between Ottawa’s post-secondary institutions, and includes Carleton University, University of Ottawa, La Cité Collégiale, and Algonquin College. Each of these institutions has their own department for accessibility. For example, at Carleton University, students with disabilities are welcome at the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities, which supports students seeking academic accommodation, and offers assistance with learning strategies.

In order to achieve the goal of increasing student employment after graduation, the David C. Onley Initiative is also conducting research to determine why the employment rates for graduated students with disabilities are so low compared to those without disabilities.

Another major goal of the initiative is knowledge mobilization. The initiative has been sharing the results of its work between the institutions involved, and will be working on furthering knowledge mobilization with media articles.

Ultimately, the David C. Onley Initiative seeks to develop strategic partnerships with post-secondary institutions, employment agencies, and employers. These partnerships, like your CCE partnerships, will offer new avenues through which diverse individuals can continue to make meaningful contributions to their communities.

What You Can Do as a CCE Practitioner

Aside from the David C. Onley Initiative, many post-secondary institutions have departments or programs that support knowledge and access for persons with disabilities. For example, Carleton University has the READ initiative, which stands for: Research, Education, Accessibility, and Design. READ functions both to provide support for researchers seeking to advance accessibility, and for people with disabilities seeking opportunities for employment.

If you are based at a post-secondary institution, make sure that you familiarize yourself with your local accessibility resource centre. If you are based in the community, see if you can access the centres at post-secondary institutions. It is also good to connect with organizations in your community specifically focused on advocating for rights for persons with disabilities.

Hands of many individuals from different background pile on top of each other in the centre.

While the recent national legislation, and local initiatives (like the David. C. Onley Initiative), will hopefully help change the conversation about disability in Canada, you can also contribute by becoming familiar with the barriers that currently exist as part of your CCE work, your organization, and your knowledge mobilization efforts. Like most challenges, the first step is awareness.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of steps that you can take:

  • Make sure that you are including discussions about disability in your CCE work and rely on the experts: Ask those with disabilities how best to accommodate their needs.
  • If you’re looking to add more people to your team, ensure that research and job opportunities are shared in a variety of ways and in accessible formats. This can include: word of mouth, university or college websites, podcasts or videos, and posters in accessibility centres.
  • As you conduct your CCE work, make sure that your meeting spaces are accessible. You may be losing important research participants because of a physical barrier blocking your space. If possible in your area, plan your meetings at a space that is close to accessible transit too.
  • When you are sharing your research, you can ensure that your findings are accessible to everyone. There are plenty of alternative formats for sharing your findings in order to make it accessible to a broader audience. Try providing an electronic transcript online that can be read on different devices, as well as offering an audio version. For an internationally recognized technology, try converting your findings into the Daisy format.

As a nation, we have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring access to all parts of society for everyone, but the new legislation on accessibility is a positive step towards this goal. On a local scale, initiatives like the David C. Onley Initiative in Ottawa are also helping to change our culture by pointing research in the right direction. But it is up to us as individuals, and especially as CCE practitioners, to make sure we change the conversation when it comes to accessibility.

You have the power to make a difference, and sometimes the first step is as simple as acknowledging a problem so you can start to find some more inclusive solutions!