Engaging People with Disabilities

Last year we jumped at the opportunity to work on a project with a local municipality that specifically focussed on engaging people with disabilities. The objectives were to ask people with disabilities about their experiences with barriers in the municipality’s infrastructure, programs, and communication platforms, and to explore how to best remove or prevent those barriers.

According to Statistics Canada (2017) 22% of Canadians aged 15 years or over have at least one disability, and with an aging population this number is expected to continue to grow. People with disabilities face barriers to equal participation in many essential parts of life including community engagement. The challenge is how to plan engagement actives that are inclusive, accessible, and welcoming to everyone.

At HOBS we believe that honesty, curiosity, and integrity are the heart of all genuine engagement, and that good communication means listening more than speaking. We uphold a gender and diversity sensitive approach to engagement. We look at each project through a variety of lenses and perspectives to find the best combination of methods and tactics to engage as many diverse communities as possible. We look for potential challenges and find opportunities to address them. We also recognize that often there is a gap between theory and reality – and this creates opportunities for learning and improvement.

This project showed us how essential it is to walk our talk, and how challenging it can be to craft engagement tools and tactics that can be adapted for a broad range of disabilities. There is no “one size fits all” solution to equitable participation. However, our grassroots approach served us well. We started by reaching out to disability advocacy groups to ask what would work and committed to honouring what we heard from them. This project ended up being deeply meaningful to our team and we are grateful for the relationships that resulted. After all, a community that makes space for diversity, is a community that includes us all.

Here are five things to consider in your engagement plan that will help include people with disabilities.

  1. Nothing about us without us.

You must honour the principle “Nothing about us without us”. This motto has been adopted by many groups, organizations, and activists across the globe whose goal is to achieve inclusion and equality for all people, including those with disabilities.

People with disabilities know what is best for them. They know how a project, proposal, or policy may affect them. Ensure you include them at the table when you begin your community engagement plan. Start by asking, not assuming, how they would like to participate and be included.

  • “People with disabilities” describes a large and diverse community.

The disability community includes a diverse range of people with physical disabilities, sensory disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and “invisible” disabilities such as epilepsy or chronic illnesses.  

With the help of the lived experience of stakeholders, for our municipal project we categorized the communities we engaged into three categories:

  1. Physical: disability affecting a person’s physical capacity and/or mobility such as spinal cord injury, Cerebral Palsy, Cystic Fibrosis, etc.
  2. Sensory: disability involving hearing and/or vision issues such as blindness, deafness, hearing loss, or deaf/blind.
  3. Developmental: disabilities such as intellectual/learning, cognitive, autism, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, etc.

Organizing the different communities into these categories helps to understand how to engage and target each community, as a tactic or tool that works well in one category may not work at all for another. For example, relying heavily on virtual engagement platforms with confusing interfaces, or print materials that use a small font, may exclude people with developmental disabilities or with vision issues.

  • Visible versus invisible disabilities.

Many people associate a disability as something to be seen and recognized, such as someone in a wheelchair.

We listened to many people with lived experienced during our engagement sessions. Many feel that there is a lack of awareness and understanding about people with disabilities, especially about people with “invisible” disabilities such as anxiety, or autism.

The best way to include people with invisible disabilities as well as people with visible disabilities is to connect with organizations, programs, and special interest groups that advocate for and provide services or programs to people with disabilities. They are the experts, an untapped resource of information about how to reach out and effectively engage with members of their community. The stakeholders we worked with provided unique and valuable insights through their lived experience and were grateful to be included in the engagement program.

  • Cultural Sensitivities.

Different cultures may have different attitudes towards people with disabilities. In your engagement plan take cultural and language diversity into consideration and also ensure you are not planning events on any culturally or religiously significant days. For some people English may not be their first language or they may not feel comfortable expressing themselves in English, in these cases we would look at having a language translator or family member present.

  • Language Awareness.

Words have a powerful impact on people. Do not make assumptions – always ask how each individual prefers to be identified. Not all people with disabilities use the same terminology. For example, some people may not want to be identified as blind, they may prefer to be identified as vision impaired.

Here is an excellent article that highlights different preferences:

Why many advocates prefer the term ‘disabled people’ over ‘people with disabilities’

I hope this gives you some new ideas to consider when planning your next community engagement event! ~ Allie Lam

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *