People living with disabilities often face unique barriers compared to those who do not live with disabilities. This is why the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) is highlighting that November is Indigenous Disability Awareness Month. This awareness month was started by Indigenous Disability Canada, formerly known as British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability Society.
It is an opportunity to build awareness around the barriers and challenges that Indigenous people living with disabilities face, but it is also a time to celebrate their strength and resilience, as well as the good work that has been done to increase accessibility.
Statistics show Indigenous people experience higher rates of disability than the general population in Canada. There are many factors for this, but colonialism and unequal access to wholistic health care that many First Nations people face is a major contributing factor. According to one academic paper, Indigenous people who are living with a disabilities are “doubly disadvantaged" due to anti-Indigenous and disability related discrimination. This does not factor in other intersectional identities that may add layers of discrimination, such as age, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Even the term “disability" is a colonial and social construct that implies someone cannot do something. That definition is different than how many First Nations cultures view people with “disabilities". Many First Nations languages do not even have a word that translates to “disability". Rather than viewing disabilities in terms of what a person cannot do, many First Nations people, families, and communities focus on the person's strengths, gifts, and positive contributions to the community.
Accessibility is a broad term, but one that is important to talk about so that everyone can navigate their communities, no matter what their ability is. One part of accessibility means that people are able to access services for their health and wellness. This can be major barrier for people with disabilities, who may have a more difficult time getting the services they need. This is particularly felt in rural and remote communities where awareness and resources may not be as available. Accessibility also means that people are able to freely enter, exit, and move around within buildings and environments, such as community buildings, public parks, health care centres, and their own homes. This includes things like wheelchair ramps and accessible washrooms, but also includes things like appropriate lighting, noise levels, and supports for those with limited vision or hearing impairments. Accessibility can also refer to how emotionally safe someone feels when they enter a space, and that they feel welcomed, supported, and safe enough to come back. Moreover, this can mean how one is able to participate in cultural traditions such as teachings around food harvesting, or access to medicines on the land. These are just a few of the many examples of what accessibility means.
One thing to reflect on during Indigenous Disability Awareness Month is that accessibility is for everyone, not just people living with disabilities, and that it means many different things to different people. To increase awareness, the FNHA is conducting a research project to determine what accessibility means to First Nations people in BC. The project is an opportunity to discuss accessibility, and how services, organizations and policies can be improved. The project findings are not only to raise awareness and showcase the diversity of the topic, it will also be used in the FNHA's approach to align with the Accessible British Columbia Act to ensure their work is rooted in the voices BC First Nations who have experience with disabilities. That means listening to stories from First Nations people, families, and communities about what accessibility means to them and offer insight on the ways that accessibility plans, policies, and guidelines can be improved.
Accessibility and lowering barriers is something the FNHA is committed to implementing with its Metro Vancouver Office Project. The project is designed to the Rick Hansen Gold Level Accessibility Standard, a national rating system that measures and certifies the level of meaningful access of buildings and sites. The FNHA has also been mandated under the Accessible British Columbia Regulation to meet accessibility requirements by September 1, 2024. Our goal is to not only meet these requirements, but exceed them and work towards a fully accessible organization. More updates on this work will be shared in the coming months.
Patrick Aleck (Xwaluputhut) is from the Stz'uminus First Nation and Penelakut Island. He is a drummer, motivational speaker, and a project advisor on the BC First Nations Perspectives on Accessibility research project. He also lives with cerebral palsy. Patrick says accessibility is more than just about having access, it's about being recognized.
“Accessibility is about seeing people with disabilities. Visibility comes before accessibility. I think Indigenous Disability Awareness Month is about visibility; we need to talk about the barriers and challenges we face as Indigenous people living with disabilities, but more importantly, the strengths and gifts that we hold in our communities."
The British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability Society has many disability resources available at this link and is a good place to look for more information from advocacy to education and employment.