Searching for Inclusive Space
Reflections on Disability

Michael Gottheil, Executive Chair - Social Justice Tribunals Ontario
Toronto, Ontario, November 2015

In my work in the justice sector, most of the people I meet are committed to fostering inclusive workplaces and communities.

You probably are too.

But let me ask these questions:

Why do we care? There are a host of reasons: legal, economic, strategic, as well as political, cultural, ethical and possibly spiritual. We know that inclusion delivers tangible social and economic benefits.

So now let’s reflect on those other, more difficult questions about inclusion. What do we mean by inclusion and how do we create an inclusive community?

In the field of disability rights, we talk a lot about the need for inclusion. We pass laws like the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) and the Human Rights Code, to remove barriers and make our communities more accessible. But if we respect the Code and implement those standards, will our workplaces and enterprises be transformed into inclusive places? Is an accessible, barrier-free space the same as an inclusive one?

As a person who is visually impaired, I’d like to offer a few reflections on this question based on my own experiences.

I see myself as a pretty confident person, accomplished in my field and personal life. And yet I sometimes find myself in professional or social situations feeling inadequate, lonely, or even helpless because of my disability.

For example, if I am at a large meeting and there are no introductions, I will not know who is present and who is speaking. If the meeting turns into a free-for-all, without any order, then I am really lost. Not knowing when to speak up, I feel awkward and anxious, I will worry that I may interrupt or speak at an inappropriate moment. Or I may not speak at all.

I often think about how difficult this type of situation must be for others - people with communication disabilities, or who are shy or pensive. People who come from cultures which have different norms about when to speak or believe that it is rude to interrupt. And I think about all of us missing out on their stories, views and insights, which remain unspoken and unheard.

Receptions are another example of what is meant to be “shared space” but I often feel uncomfortable. I walk into a room full of people, hear people talking, yet I am alone. The bigger the crowd, the more alone I feel. Most people will see someone who they know and say hello, or introduce themselves to someone who they don’t know. For me, I generally wind up introducing myself to the server. I shake their hand, say “Hello, my name is Michael”, and ask how they come to be there. “I am a server, would you like a drink,” they respond politely. “I’ll have three,” I say, thinking I might wash away my embarrassment and discomfort.

I should say that these situations are actually quite rare. I am constantly amazed and heartened by the generosity, thoughtfulness and awareness I find in people, even total strangers.

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference on Aboriginal Peoples and the Law in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When I arrived at the hotel, I was helped by the bellhop, a young man named Landon. I was pleased that he knew the exact protocol to help a visually impaired person. He was extremely helpful and patient. Throughout my stay, he and the other staff always took the time to say hello and ask if they could help. Not only was the service accessible, but they made me feel welcome. It was truly an inclusive experience. That feeling of being connected is special. It makes you comfortable and frees you to participate without constantly thinking about whether you fit in.

The keynote address at that conference was presented by the Chief Justice of Canada, the Honourable Beverley McLachlin. Speaking about the crisis in access to justice, she referenced four types of barriers: procedural, economic, informational and cultural.

It struck me that those categories also apply to barriers to access for people with disabilities – within the justice system, but also in access to employment, services and education. Procedural and informational barriers (along with physical barriers in built environments), are the ones we most commonly think about, and ones the legislation seems designed to address.

But the economic and cultural barriers to inclusion are no less important.

For example, we know that people with disabilities are three times more likely to be unemployed or under employed than the general population. We know that there is a disproportionate number of persons with disabilities who live in poverty and, as a result, they face difficulties accessing services and getting jobs. Lack of internet access, for example, may mean they cannot access job ads or use online application forms.

Poverty can also mean feeling shut out of mainstream society, which is increasingly commercialized and where identity and participation is defined by our role as consumers.

Lack of access to popular culture can also lead to persons with disabilities feeling excluded. Often, I find myself left out of a conversation about the latest movie or book, because I do not have access.

The point here is not a plea for more and better access to books, film and television for persons with sensory disabilities, though this is an important cause. Rather, I am highlighting that social and economic barriers can lead to deep isolation and leave an individual feeling alienated and excluded.

Belonging, contributing and feeling valued – these are things that everyone wants and needs.

So how do we get to a truly inclusive society? In my view, the search takes us beyond architecture, statutes and regulations to something more human – an awareness of each other’s unique experiences.

A fully inclusive space does not only provide access; it allows for an exchange of ideas, a connection to be made, and a common experience to be created. Inclusive experiences are two-way; an opportunity for both to learn and benefit.

Really, you say, then why is he only talking about his experiences of exclusion and awkwardness as a person with a disability. Where is the shared experience?

Good point. So let me move to a few examples of shared experiences of disability. The first example turns power on its head (something one should do at every opportunity) and the second is about the opportunity to connect at the heart.

In a wonderful book Touching the Rock, John Hull explores his experience of blindness. He observes that, as a person with a disability it is easy to be marginalized, but it is also easy to dominate:

It is hard to avoid the situation that arises when, because of one’s powerlessness, one does have a kind of power over other people. A disabled person tends to render non-disabled persons powerless.

One flusters them, reduces them to confusion, covers them with uncertainty and embarrassment. Makes them feel gauche and insensitive, awkward and intrusive, makes them realize that they do not know what to do. Or that they are not handling the situation very well.

Professor Hull says that it is important for a disabled person to learn how to use this power wisely. Perhaps. But it is also important to acknowledge this insight to explore the things that connect us, even those things that may be uncomfortable.

My second example is about Kirby, my new guide dog. Since working with Kirby, it is amazing how popular I have become, and how upbeat and engaged the people I encounter seem to be. Kirby is disarming. He provides an easy way to talk about my disability. He is a link that allows for a comfortable conversation about an aspect of humanity that for most people is uncomfortable, odd or even scary.

These conversations speak to our common, innate desire to connect at a pure, emotional level, and the ease with which we do that when given the opportunity.

So as we search for what makes a truly inclusive society, I would like to offer three final reflections.

First, an inclusive space is that place we all seem to long for – where our identity gains meaning through our community and our collective humanity. In other words, it is a place where we are valued for how we contribute to our collective growth.

Second, an inclusive space is a dynamic, ever-expanding space. Nobel laureate and founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, writes that with every person born into the world there is something new, something unique, and something that adds to the world.

Finally, I would say that we need to find a shared language to succeed. A language that invites us to speak from our cultures, experiences, weaknesses, failures, successes and strengths. A language that can help foster something like a shared imagination. For me, that idea is eminently exciting, and eminently inclusive.