Where Are They Now?
Re:Action4Inclusion is ringing in the new year with a short story series entitled; Where are They Now? As part of the commitment that Re:Action4Inclusion youth are making to keep inclusion a priority in 2017, we are catching up with Alumni who have been involved with the movement over the last eight years. It has been inspiring to see the ways people have continued the conversation around inclusion! Don’t forget to check in each Friday for new stories!
A YOUNG MAN WITH A MESSAGE OF EMPOWERMENT
This week Re:Action4Inclusion staff sat down with Ben Caldecott a young man from Walkerton, who has been actively involved in the movement over the past four years. Since 2013, Ben has continued to participate in the movement and has been a remarkably thoughtful person who uses his lived experience to change the way people view others who have a disability.
In high school, Ben attended segregated classes and mainstream courses. He looks back with fondness on the people he knew in high school. However, today, he says he enjoys the newfound freedom of college life much more.
Ben was first introduced to Re:Action4Inclusion when his teacher suggested that he take part in a leadership conference. He was in Grade 12 at the time. The conference was a unique opportunity to meet new people, hear from informed speakers and be introduced to a movement that shared his passion for freedom and choice.
“In high school, I just felt like I wasn’t being treated like an adult. I was concerned that I didn’t have the freedom other students my age had,” said Ben.
Unfortunately, for many students who have an intellectual disability, Ben’s experience is not an uncommon one. Since then, Ben has been a leader, a mentor and an ambassador of the movement for several years and throughout that time he has mentored youth with and without a disability. He wants to ensure people understand that youth who have a disability experience far too much inequality. He is making sure this injustice is part of the conversation around inclusion.
Ben in Orlando with fellow mentor and Adult Ally Thomas
For Ben, the most frustrating aspect of his high school experience was how his placement academically limited his ability to socially interact with his peers. He recalled that simple choices that are generally given to youth in high school were not the choices that either he or his peers in special education had. Ben told us that he felt this limited his ability to have an authentic high school experience and, in many instances, limited his ability to get to know students with similar interests outside of special education.
This past year, Ben travelled with seven other ambassadors of the Re:Action4Inclusion movement to Orlando, Florida to participate in the Leadership Summit at Inclusion International’s Shaping the Future Conference. Ben, alongside his fellow ambassadors, represented the voices of youth across Ontario by being a part of discussions and sharing the work of Re:Action4Inclusion with people around the world. For Ben, this was an empowering experience.
“It was empowering to be amongst people who shared the same beliefs as me around inclusion. There were people from all around the world there. It really was an amazing experience to network and realize that, no matter where you are from, people who have a disability should have the same rights as anyone else. We all want jobs, families, marriage or even kids! That’s our right, that’s our choice,” he affirmed.
Ben also said that his experience in Orlando taught him that, “no one can tell you different!” As advocates for inclusion in Ontario, with and without a disability, we can also influence the narrative around disability worldwide.
People that have had the privilege of getting to know Ben will know that his sincerity and genuine interest in the well being of others cannot go unnoticed.
Therefore, it is not surprising that today Ben is enrolled as a student at Lambton College in Sarnia. There, he is studying Protection, Security and Investigation. Ben shared with us how important this experience has been for him. He said that now his time is his own. Ben has an exciting schedule and social life as he is working as a security guard at a sports event center in Sarnia part-time while going to school. Ben also told us that he is enjoying the control he now has in his life.
Ben today, Student at Lampton College
“Unlike high school, I don’t have someone forcing me to do something that I don’t like doing. I am an adult and I have my own mind. If I don’t go to class I might fail a test, but that’s my own choice.”
He continued to share with us how he really likes living in the residence with other students. He has had to learn and do all the things that college and university students have to learn and do for themselves when they move away from home.
What Ben’s story shows is how important it is that we recognize that real authentic inclusion does not come from doing or thinking FOR others because personal freedom and independence is an essential part of life we all expect. We asked Ben what is one thing that he wished people knew about the injustice experienced by people who have a disability. His answer is one that will make you pause for a moment and really reflect.
“When you put people in a box, by deciding for them what they can and cannot do, it’s like confining them to a cage. People who have a disability are not animals. Our lives are meaningful and if you don’t allow someone their freedom, it’s like they are worthless, and I don’t think that’s what people really want to do.”
How important it is that we continue to reflect on the choices we make, on the attitudes we carry and on the things that we do. In this way, we can ensure that our decisions are informed and that our actions are intentional about dissolving the barriers to inclusion. When we do that, we can empower people. No matter where you go, it is true, if you think about building a community where everyone can belong you will build an environment where everyone can be successful.
It was a real treat to catch up with Ben. We are so excited to hear that college is going well and that he is excited for his final year this coming September. We are confident that he will bring a sound sense of security and belonging to whatever community he chooses to call home. We look forward to having Ben at the 2017 Re:Action4Inclusion Conference, which is being held from Friday, October 20th to Sunday October 22nd in Orillia. Stay tuned for further details!
Ktlyn Vere’s Story
YOU ARE NOT AN ISLAND
Ktlyn Vere was an open-minded and very mature high school student from Stratford Ontario. Ktlyn was always able to connect with lots of different people in her school. She herself said,
“I was kind of a floater myself but because of that I was able to interact with almost everyone in our school because I didn’t belong to one set group of people.”
Ktlyn attended the Re:Action4Inclusion conference in 2009 with her two friends Mike and Julian as well as some students from Listowel District Secondary School. She remembered that the conference was an amazing opportunity to meet people, connect on a different level and really learn about how to build communities that embraced diversity and inclusion. She specifically remembered how one speaker, Michelle Dagnino, opened her eyes to what was really possible. She said,
“She made it seem so achievable, that truly authentic inclusion in community is tangible and that stirred something inside me.”
From there, Ktlyn, Mike, Julian and the other students from Listowel formed a group they named the Perth County Youth for Inclusion. This mixed group of leaders, with and without a disability, worked alongside their peers to raise awareness about the barriers that exist for people who have a disability. This group presented to the Avon Maitland District School Board, who then approved a school tour for the students to share their enthusiasm for change and what was possible. Today, the Avon Maitland District School Board is paving the way for inclusion. To boot, high schools in Listowel, St. Marys and Wingham have all participated in Re:Action4Inclusion’s Community Change Project initiative over the last few years. Indeed, the momentum for authentic inclusion in community has not come to pass.
Ktyln at the back mingling with youth at Conference 2010
When we asked Ktlyn what made this work possible she spoke about the group’s adult ally Steph. Ktylyn told Re:Action4Inclusion staff that Steph was a “driving force” for the group. She continued,
“Steph was a passionate and encouraging voice that kept us really focused on what we wanted to achieve. She validated every single one of us and at the same time challenged us to do better. We always felt we were coming to the table as an equal and we were ready to contribute.”
We asked what she would say to others wanting to empower youth in their community. Ktlyn said
“Bring youth into your work. They are going to be the people following up with the next generation. You have to be partners in the effort for inclusion. People tend to treat teenagers like children, but Steph always treated us like we were equals and that was important. It’s not about teaching or direction. It is about coming together and creating that community.”
Here Ktlyn highlights an important point. While many leaders and organizations are now recognizing the importance of youth voice, in decision making and community, we cannot forget that all of us need an ally. We need an ally to challenge us and a mentor that shares our vision and passion for changing our society’s approach to inclusion and diversity.
Today, Ktlyn has a long list of incredible achievements we are happy to share. To start, Ktlyn has been a successful entrepreneur and business owner who has shared her passion for food and community. She also provides respite for individuals who have a disability and also works part-time as a cook. She shared with us that even though her, “work life doesn’t necessarily connect to her passions for inclusion, her values and the choices she makes on a daily basis do.” Ktlyn also mentioned that she has continued to take things that she learned from her involvement with Re:Action4Inclusion with her into her professional life. She said,
“The movement changed how I interacted with my community. I had walls up before and this allowed me to look differently at the people around me. I always believed in inclusion, in being involved and in supporting members of the community. But the relationships that I developed with people, through my involvement in this movement, gave me the confidence that later enabled me to start my own business. I was encouraged to be myself and was given a voice. I want to continue to share that and give that back to my community on a daily basis.”
Ktlyn and Mike at the Toronto Summer Institute 2011
Having known Ktlyn for a long time, we were not surprised to see that her values for community, inclusion and equality would shine through in not only her words but in her daily tasks as well. While our high school years can be some of the hardest, Ktlyn’s story demonstrates how much of an impact people can have on one another. Ktyln said,
“Community is necessary. You are not an island, you can’t exist as a singularity. You need people around you.”
How true this is!
We want to thank Ktlyn for continuing to be such a motivated young woman and leader. Her thoughtful and sophisticated concept of community can’t help but have an impact on the communities she is part of. It is inspiring to be able share with our readers how our Alumni continue to show us that Re:Action4Inclusion is not a disability movement. Rather, it is a social justice movement lead by youth with and without a disability that continues to expand on our individual understanding of each other as a society so that we can build communities where everyone is seen for their value and contributions.
Ktlyn with friends networking with advocates from New Zealand
Vittoria Gibson’s Story
A FILM WRITER WITH AN EYE FOR INCLUSION
Last week, Re: Action4Inclusion staff sat down with one of its Alumni to find out how life beyond high school has been impacted having been involved as a youth in a movement for change. Vittoria Gibson was a high school student who was first introduced to the Re:Action4Inclusion initiative when she attended an assembly at her school. This assembly was arranged by local youth from the greater Niagara region, who wanted to share an opportunity with their peers to collectively make an impact in their school communities.
The youth hosts began the assembly by inviting their peers, from neighboring schools, to become involved with this social justice movement. Re:Action4Inclusion youth had identified the need to raise awareness around the lived experiences of their peers who live with a disability. They wanted to break down the barriers that were keeping individuals, who live with a disability, from the opportunities and experiences they wanted to have. The assembly included a presentation by Norman Kunc, a well-known speaker and advocate within the disability rights community. Vittoria told us,
“Norman had an infamous voice and gave our school a tremendous insight into the day to day life of an incredible human being, and he just happened to have a disability.”
Vittoria as a youth adviser (seen on the far right)
Vittoria was motivated by Norman’s ability to convey the need for society to change the narrative around disability in such a simplistic way. Therefore, she attended the Re:Action4Inclusion Conference which was held the following November.
At the Re:Action4Inclusion Conference in 2011, Vittoria recalled how inspiring it was to just casually sit around a campfire with people, telling stories and connecting around issues that everyone cared about. She said,
“It was cool having giant conversations and honestly connecting with other people, and I wanted more of that!”
What she began to realize, through these conversations, was how complex the issues were and continue to be for students who have a disability. She gained a greater understanding of the experience of navigating the world and the school system as a teenager with a disability. Vittoria told us that when she returned home she began to notice more and more that her fellow peers who had a disability were not included in regular classrooms or social activities within the school. She started recognizing more profoundly that people were being separated from the rest of the student body.
We asked Vittoria what she decided to do about this and she told us that she had some conversations with students she wanted to get to know, who attended Special Education classes. She said that some were not happy being there and others were quite comfortable. Vittoria said,
“Being someone who loves being with people, it bugged me that others weren’t having the same opportunity to do that and so not everyone was getting the full high school experience. I believe that we are all more alike than different. But I realized that more often than not, our society expects less from individuals whose contributions and gifts are not seen as important.”
Vittoria said, “People should automatically assume that all young people have ideas, dreams or passions!” That was the message she carried with her going forward. Vittoria continued to work with the movement as a member of the Youth Advisory Committee and also worked with the planning committee for the next Re:Action4Inclusion Conference in 2012. She also attended the Toronto Summer Institute that year with a group of her peers to continue to represent the voice of youth. She realized that sharing her voice and working with her peers was a way that she could begin to change the conversations and deepen the understanding of the barriers faced by individuals who have a disability.
Vittoria and her peers representing the movement summer 2012
Vittoria has since graduated from Sheridan College with a diploma in Film and Television studies. She works in customer service and volunteers her time at festivals and events held within the city of Toronto. Some of these have included Toronto Comic Con, Fan Expo, Conbravo, The Canadian Screen Awards, and the TURF Music Festival just to name a few. While Vittoria continues to gain experience and network with others in her field, she has also begun to write film stories. When asked how her involvement has impacted her work she told us,
“I write film stories about people and I’m not thinking about what they look like. I’m thinking about their day to day lives, what their passions are and what their story could be.”
We are delighted to see such a mature young woman pushing boundaries and challenging the Film Industry to be a more inclusive one. Vittoria said, “The industry is getting better because people are breaking down barriers out there and expecting greater authenticity from one another.” This is something we can all think a little bit more about next time we decide to go to the movies or choose something from Netflix.
It was a pleasure to catch up with Vittoria and to see her continuing to challenge society to change its perceptions even as an adult. Now, even outside of the regular classroom setting, Vittoria has the ability to identify where there is a greater need for inclusion because from an early age she understood what authentic inclusion looks like. It is certainly true that “Once you see ‘it’ you can’t un-see ‘it”. A quotation from Norman Kunc.
Brittany Manu’s Story
People Just Want Genuine Relationships
Re:Action4Inclusion recently sat down with Brittany Manu an alumni of the movement and strong advocate for inclusion in Ontario. After High School, Brittany studied Health Sciences at the University of Ontario’s Institute of Technology with a passion for her field but also for inclusion. Today she works to provide quality care for individuals across Ontario within the Health Services sector. She told us that her involvement with the movement has really shaped her thinking and is now influencing the way she approaches the individuals that she meets through her work. She shared that health equity is where she has found her passion as she works to bring quality care to communities of First Nation’s Peoples, to individuals of different racial minorities and also to individuals who have a disability.
Brittany is now also currently working on producing her first album. We asked Brittany how equity and inclusion have influenced her creative side. She said,
“I am more conscious of including a variety of experiences in my music. I think about my music through the lens of others. How can they relate to my music? How will they enjoy it? I don’t want to put any limitations on it. Music today doesn’t really reflect real people or experiences. I try to write songs that do.”
We are very excited to see how much Brittany has accomplished in such a short time. Brittany is no stranger to this movement. She has been influential in her involvement as a strong young leader, mentor and speaker over the years and is very much involved with this work to this day. However, Brittany has a unique story in that she wa
s part of the very first group of youth who attended the Re:Action4Inclusion Conference back in 2008.
It was the first year of the movement and the call went out across the province to gather young people together for a cause. That cause turned into a youth-lead social justice movement that thousands of youth across the province have shaped and supported over the last 9 years. With 8 years under her belt, we asked Brittany to think back over the years and to share with our readers the moments that have stayed with her and that she feels influences her life on a daily basis. She told us that her involvement with the movement has taught her two very important things. First, that disability is NOT a disadvantage. Second, that people want genuine relationships.
Brittany is seen second from the left
“I think an important piece of this movement is that it gathers people who look at inclusion through a lens of diversity. You learn that you cannot understand people if you choose to see them how the media or stereotypes tells you to or even with your own personal bias. I ‘ve learned how to look and understand the people around me.”
We asked Brittany how this has helped her be more influential as a community builder. She stated that she’s learned that,
“You have to look from the perspective that everyone’s glass is half empty. We all have limitations as community members but we have to come together and fill each other’s glasses. We have to see one another as community partners, with something to contribute, be it from their own experience or relationships. That’s how we build community.”
“I’ve become very sensitive to my surroundings and to the people I interact with. I’ve never used derogatory words to describe people but the R-Word never used to make me cringe. After I took the time to meet people who are impacted daily by that word, it now makes me cringe every time I hear it. So by being sensitive to others experiences, I’ve subsequently become more in tune with others in my community. I’m conscious of how they experience the community and now I can work to change those experiences and make them consistently more positive.”
Brittany seen leading a presention alongside her peers
It is exciting to hear Brittany talk about how the work that she has so passionately been involved in has had a real personal impact on the strong young woman that she is today.
Brittany also highlighted in our discussion that this movement has not only shaped her personally but also helped her understand others on a human level. She emphasized the fact that everyone, no matter who you are, wants genuine relationships. We thought it was interesting that she does not talk to people just because they have a disability and that it would make sense considering the years she’s spent dedicated to this movement.
Instead she said,
“I am going to interact with people because I want to, because I see that we might have mutual interests and vision for the world around us.”
“So really, this movement has made me a more genuine person by nature. I don’t do things out of charity. I am myself and I give people the opportunity to be themselves around me.”
It is always a pleasure speaking to Brittany and anyone who knows her will say that she certainly has a way of making you think in such an eloquent way.
You might have met Brittany at this past year’s Re:Action4Inclusion Conference where she facilitated the “Mind the Gap” Workshop that empowered students to use their voice and write slam poetry about the things they were learning. We look forward to continuing to see Brittany at our events and involved in leading the movement. We also trust that she will shine in her endeavors to contribute to the conversations around inclusion and diversity within the Health Sector.
Brittany with her “Mind the Gap” workshop participants at Conference 2016
Danny Steeve’s Story
Empowered to Lead the Way for Others
Danny Steeves’ journey into advocacy for people who have a disability began in 2010 soon after he became involved in the Re:Action4Inclusion movement.
Re:Action4Inclusion is social justice movement of high school aged youth that is supported by Community Living Ontario and funded by the Trillium Foundation in Ontario. Re:Action4Inclusion recognizes that the inclusion of youth who have a disability in all areas of society is a social justice issue. The movement seeks to empower students, with and without disabilities, to work in partnership with one another and their adult allies to dispel negative biases that are often associated with people who have an intellectual disability.
While enrolled at Listowel District Secondary School, Danny attended Re:Action4Inclusion’s annual conference in Orillia in 2010. The connections he made with his peers while at the conference set him on a path towards a career in public speaking, towards a role in community leadership and a life of genuine purpose.
When asked to describe his experience at Re:Action4Inclusion’s conference Danny said, “It was all about inclusion and how you have to stand up for yourself and how you have to include people who have a disability. It was a really cool conference to go to,” says Danny.
Danny at the Re:Action4Inclusion conference 2010
As a person who has a disability, the message resonated with him. He took what he learned at that conference and became involved in promoting inclusion in his high school. He built friendships with his peers who took the time to know Danny as the leader he was and who were inspired to work with Danny to begin re-shaping their school’s culture. Inevitably, Danny and his friends became models of inclusion because they demonstrated the importance of authentic friendship.Together they shared their passion for what they had learned and to this day Danny and a few of the crew who attended the Re:Action4Inclusion conference in 2010 are still friends.
Now, six years later, Danny is still a strong advocate for inclusion. He is also active in his community of Listowel, participating in activities such as the StopGap initiative. Using brightly painted cost-effective, portable ramps to create conversations with business owners around the importance of barrier-free spaces, StopGap illustrates how a simple step can be a really big deal to so many people.
Danny also sits as a member of the North Perth Community of Character. This group consists of like-minded individuals who strive to make character a part of their personal, professional and family life. They work with schools, local businesses and other partners to motivate others to make character a focus in their lives. Inclusion is one of the character traits they promote.
Danny with the crew from Listowel and Stratford
Last December, Danny was recognized for his accessibility efforts and he was presented with the David C. Onley Award for Leadership in Accessibility. This award is a true testament to Danny’s character but also the impact he has had as a devoted community member but also the impact he continues to have as an engaged citizen in our country.
Today, he travels the province as a motivational speaker and advocate, a career he credits to his involvement with the Re:Action4Inclusion movement.
“I think it really opened my eyes to see that I have to be an advocate for everybody, because not everyone has someone to advocate for them. I’m a voice for people with disabilities that don’t have a voice,” he says.
It is evident that Danny’s voice has been empowered by the opportunity he had to connect with people in his community and that these connections inevitably influenced the quality of the community he still continues to build around him. Although now a successful adult, Danny’s story acts as a reminder that youth CAN and WILL become community leaders when communities value the civic engagement of youth and recognize the importance of their voices. Things went full circle for him in November, as Danny will led a session during Re:Action4Inclusion’s 2016 conference in Orillia. Like others did for him in 2010, he shared his perspective and insights with students that are keen to make their schools and communities more inclusive to people with and without a disability.
Dan talking with adult allies at conference 2016
Kelsey Hunter’s Story
CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR PEOPLE TO BECOME EQUAL AND INCLUDED
Kelsey Hunter has always been an inclusion champion. While attending her Secondary School, she noticed how the students with disabilities were segregated during lunch time.
They were shoved into a corner of the gym and didn’t really get to know anybody else. It really bothered me, she recalls.
And it was at high school that she experienced inclusion for the first time through a program called adaptive physical education. The class included both mainstream students and students with disabilities who worked together to adapt games and exercises.
“We learned how the marginalizing of youth with disabilities was occurring, not just in our school, but in our community and in our society,” says Kelsey.
Through the program, Kelsey became passionate about inclusion and it was this passion that gained her a spot at the first ever Re:Action4Inclusion conference.
At the conference, Kelsey had the opportunity to hear Norman Kunc speak. She says, “He completely changed my thoughts on inclusion, what disability is and what equality is. That it’s not about being a helper, feeling sorry or feeling like people with disabilities require charity, but making sure that I’m creating opportunities for people to become equal and included in everything that I’m a part of.”
The youth conference that offered Kelsey support in her efforts for inclusion back in 2009 remains an annual conference hosted by Community Living Ontario with youth from the movement.
Kelsey seen on the far right
After the conference, Kelsey returned to school, inspired to teach others the value of inclusion. She became an advocate and an ambassador of Re:Action4Inclusion and organized a regular luncheon that got students with disabilities out of the corner and interacting with their peers. Through this program, Kelsey began to shift the culture of her high school and started to change perceptions of disability.
“I tried to become a part of what my teacher was doing in terms of teaching the school about inclusion. ͞The school administration didn’t take the [adaptive phys ed] class seriously; we weren’t treated fairly and we didn’t get the same opportunities as the other classes did. It wasn’t as inclusive as it could have been because people didn’t understand inclusion in a way this teacher did,” says Kelsey.
Today, Kelsey continues to be involved in the Movement, including attending and speaking at conferences. The lessons she has learned have stuck with her. Now a Youth Services Officer, with the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Kelsey sees the need for inclusion in her day to day work with at-risk youth.
Kelsey as a youth adviser conference 2013
“I’m trying to incorporate those ideals into everything I do; making sure I’m not leaving anyone out; making sure I’m adapting the way that I work based on if a youth has a disability – known or unknown – that I’m making those inclusive adaptations so they can participate in day to day life.”
Re:Action4Inclusion is a province wide, youth-focused social justice initiative supported by Community Living Ontario and funded in part by the Trillium Foundation. The movement empowers high school students with and without disabilities, to use their experiences and their voice to shift the culture of our society and build more inclusive spaces in education and community. This movement of youth is working alongside their community and school allies to build a stronger sense of community and belonging.
The youth conference that offered Kelsey support in her efforts for inclusion back in 2009 remains an annual conference hosted by Community Living Ontario with youth from the movement.
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