Sunday, November 29, 2009

Canadian youth forum learns about disability issues

From the Community Press in Canada:

BELLEVILLE, Canada – John Draper (pictured) is a person with a disability, not a disabled person.

Being aware of terms we use such as "confined to a wheelchair" or "wheelchair-bound" was part of what Draper shared with 80 student leaders during the annual Youth Forum at the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board education centre Nov. 25.

Draper, who has cerebral palsy and can't speak, has a diploma in journalism from Durham College and has been presenting his motivational presentation Together We Rock for three years.

His presentation focused on accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities, especially in schools, It was developed based on Draper's personal experiences.

"An inclusive school is one where people with disabilities feel like they belong and are included," Draper said.

He identified three keys to creating a school that is accessible for and inclusive of people with disabilities: believing it is possible, accepting that all people are different and have different abilities, and realizing that if everyone works together it can happen.

Draper said that when he was born his parents were told he would be brain damaged, "severely retarded," a vegetable, and have limited potential for being a contributing member of society.

He said he was tempted to send the doctor who made the diagnosis a copy of his college diploma with a note saying, "Best wishes from the vegetable with limited potential."

Draper said students need to be committed rather than just interested in making their schools inclusive.

Commitment means taking full responsibility to make it happen while interest simply means making an effort when it is convenient.

"If you're committed to being inclusive for all students you can't just make excuses," he said.

Draper recounted an experience at his own "inclusive" high school where lockers were assigned alphabetically but his was grouped with those of other students with disabilities.

He took the issue to the vice-principal and had the arrangement changed, arguing that if that was the practice then other students should be grouped according to common traits such as cultural beliefs or religion.

"You must believe in possibilities," he said, adding if people are to be truly inclusive of people with disabilities they have to do it all the time.

Accepting people and recognizing their differences is the second key.

Draper delivered his presentation, which included a professional voice-over, by using his right knee and left hand to operate controls on his wheelchair.

He said sometimes when people find out he can't talk they think he has nothing meaningful to say.

"A lot of people feel uncomfortable around someone who communicates differently," he said. "I feel the same way."

A person is not his or her disability, Draper stressed, saying he would rather be called a person with a disability than a disabled person. He said he is actually the exact opposite of being confined to a wheelchair.

"I am a person who uses a wheelchair," he said.

He also dislikes being called special because people treat someone they call special differently.

"People who have disabilities do not want to be treated differently," Draper said. They want the same challenges and opportunities as others.

He told the students it is important to talk to people with disabilities and to try to understand them. He encouraged them to be leaders – the third key – and to take action and make a positive difference in the world.

He suggested they stop using certain words like cripple and retarded and to tour their schools to look for access issues.