Lessons from the National Youth Forum in Ottawa

By Natalie Spagnuolo 

Natalie is a member of CCD's Social Policy Committee. She is a doctoral candidate in Critical Disability Studies at York University and a Joseph-Armand-Bombardier Doctoral Fellow of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

I had the pleasure of representing the Council of Canadians with Disabilities during the National Youth Forum on disability, organized by the Office for Disability Issues. The forum, which took place in Ottawa on November 1st, was part of a broader consultation process that will inform the new federal disability legislation.

It was an energizing gathering that brought together over one hundred youth with disabilities from across the provinces and territories.

As a CCD representative, I worked as a focus group facilitator and, towards the end of the event, served as a plenary discussant, helping to summarize and present key issues to the larger group.

Youth – let alone youth with disabilities – are rarely, if ever, consulted by government, and there was marked eagerness on the part of many participants to become a part of decision-making processes that will inform the new federal legislation.

A preoccupation that was voiced continuously throughout the day was, "How can I remain involved?"

For many, involvement is understood as going beyond focus groups and forums to include the design, implementation, and enforcement of the federal legislation, as well as leadership around disability-related government initiatives and policy planning work.

Some participants encouraged the government to model inclusion by ensuring that their own hiring practices and events prioritize the participation of people with disabilities – a point that is especially important as the federal government moves forward in developing new standards and practices for the country. Several youth took the opportunity to reach out to government staff to exchange contact information, with the hope that federal agencies will practice equitable hiring practices and serve as a locus for disability employment initiatives.

The expertise that was shared during the focus group sessions proves beyond a doubt that lived experience is the best source of knowledge on matters of disability exclusion.

The outcome of these conversations was equally revealing, as many participants detailed the extent to which they are marginalized from economic, political, and cultural processes.

For those who have been living on the margins, this is not news – yet the sheer number of youth experiencing these injustices serves as an admonition that a dedicated and coordinated level of action is needed to improve the situation.

Poverty, unemployment, and underemployment all stood out as key concerns and common experiences.

Issues of misrecognition relating to misconceptions about disability and its representations, which devalue the contributions of people with disabilities or deny the supports that would facilitate these contributions, were also voiced.

The profound yet commonplace impact of environmental barriers in transit systems on the lives of many youth was also confirmed, and these experiences occurred even en route to the forum.

The appearance of vast swathes of paperwork in the everyday lives of many participants was linked to time-consuming and inaccessible eligibility requirements and a general lack of consistency and shared standards across and within regions.

These are only a few of the many forms of exclusion that emerged through discussion in some of the small sessions that were held.

Most participants, it seemed, would like to ensure that the issues they described are addressed through rigorous and proactive legislation. Of course, the priorities gathered through the November 1st consult reflect only a sample of existing problems.

During the closing plenary, we heard feedback from participants who noted the limiting nature of the present dialogue, primarily because the event was not reflective of the diversity of existing disability communities. Notably absent were people with disabilities of colour and Black people with disabilities, as one participant pointed out during the closing Q&A. She invited organizers to reach out to these groups in the future.

These conversations must continue so that government can hear from communities who were not reached by this process, and from the many individuals who are already marginalized within disability communities.

In an effort to keep the conversation going, a Facebook group called "Accessible Canada Young Leaders" was swiftly created by a participant. Some work is continuing through this platform, in addition to the official discussion board hosted by Engagement HQ.

It is important that we continue to move forward to address the many systemic problems with the current situation. The challenge will be to do this in a way that empowers those who are most affected and those with most at stake – people with disabilities.