Everyday Heroes: Meet Your Neighbours

This blog entry was inspired by the recent release of a video created as part of an action research project by Concordia University professor Ann-Louise Davidson in collaboration with LiveWorkPlay and its members. If you are not touched by these stories, I will give you your money back!

Two stories of struggle and triumph!

Two stories of struggle and triumph!

Hopefully you do find the stories of these two women inspiring. I have known each of them for a decade, but watching this video myself for the first time, I gained fresh perspective and renewed admiration for their personal journeys and accomplishments. But for those of you who hear their tales of struggle and triumph and experience a similar reaction, I want to make sure it is understood that their stories are not entirely unusual in the world of individuals who have an intellectual disability.

The best explanation I’ve ever heard (from Dave Hingsburger and others) for understanding life as a person with an intellectual disability is to imagine that trying to go about your daily business is like being Rosa Parks; but instead of race-based bigotry you are constantly asked to “give up your seat on the bus” to other people who think you are incompetent, fear you, bully you, or simply don’t value you as a full citizen. This is what Hingsburger has called “disphobia” (see also disablism and ableism).

You might think an analogy that links the blunt racism confronted by Parks to the current experience of people with intellectual disabilities to be a harsh or extreme comparison. But given half of Canadians in a 2008 survey conducted by the Canadian Association for Community Living openly admitted to being uncomfortable just being around people with intellectual disabilities, it becomes easier to understand not only the disgraceful rate of unemployment (a whopping 75%) but also why the segregation of people with intellectual disabilities (see below) continues in our communities. The figures on abuse and sexual assault are shocking. You probably wouldn’t believe me, so read at your own risk these statistics from objective third parties.

We have segregated education, segregated housing, and segregated sports and recreation. This is not to say that there is never a use for specialized supports and services, but rather that we should not only invest in keeping people with intellectual disabilities apart from others, we should invest in all citizens being together. (This is sometimes known as the movement for inclusion, but that label has been significantly co-opted and corrupted, so I use it with increasing caution).

In plain language, I am talking about upstanding citizens who get treated like criminals (see slides 18 and 21 here). Their “crime” is daring to live their lives despite being labelled as “abnormal” by a society that continues to deliberately marginalize and punish the existence of “difference.”

Increasingly we do see more positive imagery associated with disability and related labels. But how often does this extend beyond disabilities that are most easily understood (or at least that people think they can easily understand) such as a person who experiences success as an author, actor, politician or business person and happens to be deaf or blind, or perhaps someone who has a complex physical disability who happens to develop a theory to explain the universe.

The truth is, I can’t help but have an appreciation for anyone who has the courage to walk the streets of Ottawa without full eyesight (yes Shelley Ann Morris, I mean you). It’s dangerous enough for pedestrians with full eyesight (I recently had to jump the hood of a car to avoid being hit while crossing with walk signal). And yes, I am in awe of someone like Stephen Hawking. But I would like you to consider that there are all sorts of other people worthy of respect and admiration – not “because they have a disability” but because they live in a world that forces existence with a disability to require courage. These are the “Rosa Parks heroes” going about their lives in our communities each and every day: people with intellectual disabilities who dare to pursue paid employment, dare to live in apartments and houses in the community, and dare to attempt and welcome friendships from the people they meet.

Featured in the video that inspired this blog are two citizens that I admire for their courage in the face of adversity – the adversity that comes from living with an intellectual disability in a society that is in many ways openly hostile to their existence – coupled with some life challenges that would test the mental and physical will of any human being.

These are just two stories of struggle and triumph. Every single person with an intellectual disability faces adversity every day. We don’t need to patronize, deify, or glamorize their existence. But we do need to challenge ourselves as a community to make the daily life of people with intellectual disabilities a bit less heroic. If you can help by supporting the creation of a job, or perhaps you’d like to consider opening your life to new possibilities, please don’t hesitate to be in touch. It’s what all of us at LiveWorkPlay are determined to make happen, but we can’t do it without your help.

Special thanks to the Canadian Association for Community Living for profiling this video on their new and exciting website, and for providing many of the statistics and references on this article.

Agents of Good

Thanks to Agents of Good for inclusion in their Daily!

A high quality version of this video is available here (right click to download). I ask only that you notify me of how you make use of it.

About Keenan Wellar

Keenan is a citizen of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and co-leader of a social change and community benefit organization, LiveWorkPlay.ca, a registered charity which helps the community welcome and include people with intellectual disabilities, autistic persons, and individuals with a dual diagnosis to live, work, and play as valued citizens. LiveWorkPlay was named Ottawa's Best Non-Profit of 2019 by the Ottawa Board of Trade and Ottawa Business Journal "Best Ottawa Business Awards " With Julie Kingstone, Keenan is co-owner of Wellstone Leadership Services, dedicated to supporting a culture of excellence for non-profit, private sector, government organizations, collaborations, and partnerships. Keenan is a founding member of the leadership group for the From Presence To Citizenship collaborative. Keenan is a regular guest (monthly) of the News 1310 Power Lunch radio show, and he writes the monthly NPQ North column for Nonprofit Quarterly. When not working and supporting various social causes, Keenan loves kayaking and wildlife photography, cheering for the Ottawa RedBlacks and Pittsburgh Steelers, and causing a disturbance on social media.
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4 Responses to Everyday Heroes: Meet Your Neighbours

  1. Steve Fudge says:

    I find that people with intellectual disabilities are too often described as being “heroes”. I appreciate the fact certain people have overcome a great deal of adversity and I applaud those individuals for what they have accomplished.

    However, when someone with an intellectual disability is called a hero it implies that simply living a life with a disability must be a struggle. It further acknowledges intellectual disability as a negative thing and continues to point out the differences in people, not the similarities.

    People with intellectual disabilities don’t want to be seen as “heroes” or “special”. They just want to fit in and be accepted for who they are.


    • keenanwellar says:

      Thank you Steve, if you read the blog and watched the video you’ll see the stories aren’t about disabilities. Moira’s story is about dealing with the trauma that she and her family suffered at the hands of a brutal dictator and moving forward with her life. Caroline’s story is about overcoming the despair of being dumped into institutional housing and re-emerging from that darkness to resume her artistic interests and other joys in life. Common attitudes about people with intellectual disabilities include fear and/or pity, and I was hoping to open some people’s eyes to a different reality – that they are human beings capable of suffering tragedies and capable also of resilience. I personally find both of these individuals heroic – they have gone through traumatic experiences that are far worse than anything I’ve experienced, and I really don’t know if I’d have responded as well as they have. Having intellectual disabilities certainly hasn’t made it any easier for them, because when you have such a label there are systems aligned against you (of the type that channeled Caroline into institutional housing) that made overcoming those traumas all the more difficult. Heroic because they were born with a disability? No. Heroic in the sense that they suffered great personal tragedies and have not let that stop them from following their dreams? For me, yes!


  2. Steve says:

    Hey Keenan,

    “Heroic because they were born with a disability? No. Heroic in the sense that they suffered great personal tragedies and have not let that stop them from following their dreams? For me, yes!”

    My thoughts exactly! It wasn’t my intention to take anything away from either of these two.


    • keenanwellar says:

      Thanks Steve, I really appreciated your comment. Precious few people ever even think about these issues! I’m working on a new blog right now, I welcome your feedback when it’s done 🙂


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