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Toronto Citizenship and Advocacy project aims to empower young adults with disabilities

Members involved in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre Citizenship and Advocacy Project gather to discuss issues at Toronto's City Hall on Dec. 5, 2018.

Tijana Martin

On a chilly night in early December, Lyla Fern-Weinbren walked the halls of Toronto’s City Hall for the very first time. A Cabbagetown resident with a learning disability, Ms. Fern-Weinbren had often passed by the concrete municipal hub, but had never stepped past its front threshold – much less spoken with her local representatives.

“I feel a little intimidated. It feels like I don’t really have a voice,” she said. “It feels like they’re higher up, and I’m just below.”

Her sentiment came after an uncommon gathering inside the council chambers. A handful of young adults, each with intellectual or developmental disabilities, peppered downtown councillor Joe Cressy with questions ranging from job-search issues in Toronto to the surge of gun violence that has scarred the city in recent months.

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“I’ve been looking for part-time employment since 2010,” said Ken Harrower, a participant with a neuromuscular disorder called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which affects his joints and slows his speech. “I find that companies just say they’re equal opportunity. That’s not true. So how does the city help?”

Ken Harrower, right, laughs while touring Toronto's City Hall with other members involved in the Citizenship and Advocacy project.

Tijana Martin

Dayna Morris, who has autism, worries that police don’t know what to do if a disabled person – especially a non-verbal child – is experiencing distress. “I know that stress can cause a lot of disabled people to go into meltdowns,” she said. If an officer doesn’t have experience interacting with disabled citizens, she fears a violent response.

Many of their questions were prepared in advance as part of a new endeavour at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. Dubbed the Citizenship and Advocacy project, it aims to connect disabled adults between the ages of 18 and 30 with their governments, while providing education on advocacy and city issues. The back-and-forth dialogue in the chambers touched on issues as simple as snow-clearing services, the absence of which can force those with mobility issues onto roads and into dangerous situations. While many of the queries were related to life as a disabled person in Toronto, others reflected concerns affecting a broader population: crowding on subways or the shooting on the Danforth this summer.

Conversations like that with disabled constituents are rare, Mr. Cressy said in a phone call days later. On the sidewalk snow-clearing debate, he admitted that the disability factor hadn’t previously been on his radar. Council discussed the issue often, he said, and he’d been part of several conversations around cost, functionality and the impact on seniors’ mobility. The lack of conversations surrounding disability is a problem, he said; it is a dialogue that is needed to better inform the decisions of councillors and city staff.

Councillor Joe Cressy, right, chats with members involved in the project during a tour of council chambers at Toronto's City Hall.

Tijana Martin

“It also speaks to, frankly, the fact that we have 25 members of council and I think we all would define ourselves as able-bodied,” he said.

Disability has been documented as one of Canada’s more significant barriers to civic participation. Twelve per cent of Canadians who did not vote federally in 2015 cited illness or disability as their reason for not casting a ballot, according to Statistics Canada’s labour-force survey. Data also show that economically and socially advantaged citizens are more likely to express their views, from public meetings to contacting politicians or newspapers.

Jennifer Hiseler, a Toronto accessibility specialist, said barriers also prevail in consultation processes. Provincial standards for accessibility often include an obligation to consult with disabled citizens. “But none of these are really paid positions," she said.

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The city of Toronto has its own accessibility advisory committee, which Mayor John Tory says he’ll look to re-establish in coming weeks as the newly elected council starts its work. (This committee, too, is unpaid. The city lists it as a “public service.”)

James Brown, left, asks a question while touring the City Hall.

Tijana Martin

Toronto could be doing more, Mr. Tory concedes, especially when it comes to providing housing and consulting with individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. They have some initiatives, such as a partnership between Community Housing and Community Living that secures units for the intellectually disabled. But he says he understands it wasn’t easy for groups like Community Living to “get in the door."

That strikes at the heart of why the community centre started this program, said Liviya Mendelsohn, the centre’s director of accessibility and inclusion. The idea was to listen to voices that wouldn’t typically be heard in government – and for those voices to be valued.

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