Canada: Social Justice – Itʼs The Attitude That Needs To Change

Last Updated: April 8 2019
Article by Brenda Agnew

At its foundation, the concept of social justice involves making everything equal and levelling the playing field for everyone. It seems like such a simple concept and yet it really is so complex. I don't think I ever truly understood that more than when I became the mother of a child with a disability.

The reality is that many things in our world are not equal, and even with great advocacy and awareness, the world falls short in providing the same opportunities to everyone. So how do we do better? What are the barriers that prevent this from happening?

In my life as a mother who is raising a child with a brain injury who uses a wheelchair, the most obvious obstacles to social justice that we encounter are the physical ones. The glaring lack of accessibility in areas like transit, buildings, parks. Paying the same price for tickets to a hockey game, but having to sit in an area that is deemed accessible but not able to see past the rail that is right at sightline. Walking into a restaurant where there is no elevator and Maclain has to be lifted up a flight of stairs so he doesn't have to miss out on a gathering with friends and family. How many times we have heard apologies because we could not get our son into a building, or people blocking our van ramp with illegal parking jobs, so we can't get into a mall or a movie theatre. Additional barriers are things like lack of closed captioning or real-time captioning, appropriate lighting, sound fields, and the list goes on.

These issues can actually be resolved quite easily, but they become a source of great frustration, and they effectively reduce the ability for many people to be an equal participant in society. In most situations, it takes multiple attempts to get the message through to the right people, and even then there is no guarantee it will be changed. Removing physical barriers to inclusion and the creation of equitable access, levelling the playing field, are often easy to "fix" and when these barriers come down, opportunities are created quickly. Yet I often find the root of any resistance to address these physical barriers is the attitudes or beliefs of the people needed to make these changes. Theory would dictate that if people truly believed in equality, we wouldn't have to plead or implore to have things set right, it would just be automatic.

The hardest barriers to social justice that exist in society in my experience are the ones that you cannot see. It sounds cliché, but it is true.

The ones that make the goals of true social justice seem unattainable are those that are attitudinal. The reluctance to make sports programs accessible for all is an example. The automatic assumption that the person with a disability cannot be a valued and contributory member of the team, and cannot succeed in the activity.

My son not being allowed on a skating rink in his wheelchair because of some age-old policy, or poorly trained customer service people who don't seem to see the issue of not allowing him to be on the rink with everyone else and doesn't seem to believe that there is a policy that permits him to participate is a typical example. Employers who will not offer jobs to people with disabilities, and in some consider them for positions, epitomize the problem. Ignoring their experience, desire and drive to be a tax-paying member of society. By not considering applicants based on their experience, but rather stopping at their disability, their opportunities are limited. How is that social justice? We encourage our teens to get jobs and pay for their own things, we raise our children to learn the value of money and teach them about independence, but then when they hit the "real" world, they come face to face with just how inequitable things can be for people with disabilities who want to get a job.

We encounter educators who jump to modify a student's curriculum before exploring accommodations that may assist to keep that student at the same academic level as their peers. Instead, assumptions on ability seem to trump common sense and students are placed at a disadvantage before anyone has even had a chance to explore their learning capabilities.

Organizations consciously disregard the needs of people with disabilities because it is too much work, or costs too much money, or the organization is just simply apathetic. People in our world who cannot be bothered or view social justice as a hassle because it goes against the grain of what they have always done, or they just simply don't understand.

As a community, we have to come together to make the necessary changes so things can be better for everyone. What is good for one is often good for many. When, as an example, an accessible viewing platform is put in at a hockey arena, it is not just for the child with a brain injury who uses a wheelchair. It is for the grandmother who uses a walker and wants to come to watch her granddaughter play ringette. It is for the teenager who broke his ankle and is using a wheelchair and wants to watch his friends play hockey. It is for the new mom with a sleeping baby in a stroller who wants to watch her son learn to skate. It allows everyone to experience the events that are happening.

The best experiences we have had as members of our community, and society as a whole, are the ones where people have voluntarily stepped up to open a door, or help us lift our son up some stairs. Strangers who have asked us if they can help, or have just jumped in to improve a situation that would have otherwise left us out. The parents of our son's peers who find alternate options for birthday parties and play dates because they want him to be a part of it. Future employers who are already making plans to hire him when he is ready and wants to start working. Not because they will receive a government grant for doing so, but because they truly think he would be an asset to their organization. Policies and procedures that include and don't exclude. Teachers who help students reach for the stars. People who look past the outside and look to the inside to find ways to ensure everyone have the same fair chances in life.

We all have a part to play, that is what social justice is all about. Working as a whole to make things better for the parts, so that everyone is treated equally. By creating equal opportunities for all people, removing those physical and attitudinal barriers that exist around race, disability, religion and so on. We need to look through the lens of many, so we can see what is needed by all.

Originally posted in the March 2019 of the OBIA Review.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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