A Turning Point—My Last Blog Post as President and CEO of MODC

Upon receiving well wishes from many friends and colleagues during my last month, week, then final day as March of  Dimes Canada’s President & CEO, I may not have expressed fully the appreciation I truly felt, for that feeling  was coupled with regret, (for sure I am leaving), confusion (about what really is next), dismay (for the sudden decision despite giving a year’s notice), and surprise (finding myself having arrived at age 70.) I most sincerely thank all staff, volunteers, board and committee members, donors, colleagues, vendors, consultants, consumers and friends who have shared the journey or part of 37+ years with me. It’s been a challenging, joyful, sometimes heartbreaking but always rewarding ride. What I have learned can’t even be summed up. You have shared your knowledge and skills, passions, expectations, failings and achievements, laughter and tears, and we have made a better community, a better Canadian society, and better lives for countless people. I extend warmest best wishes to my replacement, Leonard Baker, now President & CEO.

I am full of gratitude for having had fulfilling work, a welcoming environment, great team mates, and many leader/collaborators. Not for a day did I ever experience doubt about March of Dimes, though many a day I doubted my own capacity to move things forward. Often nervous to speak to a group, worried that I might not have an inspiring message, I found inspiration in the receptivity and acceptance that was sent my way. Thanks for being willing to listen, to giving voice to your own thoughts and needs, and to helping move the agenda along. Thanks to those who offered new challenges, and to those who acted on their own initiative. The future for people with disabilities in Canada is much brighter for the work of the entire MODC team–in service, in advocacy, in fundraising, in administration, in IT, program development and planning, research and marketing/communications.  May your every day be a great one.

But, I cannot end my message here, for with every well wisher who asked, “Are you going on a trip?”, “Have you taken up a new hobby or pastime?”, “Do you have any plans?”, I have responded that I am leaving March of Dimes in order to give more time and commitment to fighting antisemitism. That may seem remote from working for people with disabilities but it is not. People with disabilities have experienced extreme discrimination, prejudice, unfair judgements and unequal access, and all can’t be rectified with just greater attention to buildings or more legislation. Attitudes make a huge difference.

Jew-hatred or antisemitism today isn’t about unfair access, which it was in the past and worryingly could be again in the future. Antisemitism is expressed in attitudes, belligerence, vandalism, displays of intolerance and the repeating of lies, and it is very much a part of the singling out of Israel for discrimination and retribution. A country that is the only Jewish nation state, is constantly accused of being an evil empire when it is the only country in the Middle East and North Africa that has full rights for all of its citizens, that has equality for LGBTQ folks, that has accessibility as a mantra for all developments new and old, that has contributed more to technological and medical advancements for mankind that any other small or large nation,  that is religiously and racially diverse, that sends medical teams to every country experiencing a man-made or climate disaster, and that has rescued and treated its enemies.

The oldest religious hatred is antisemitism, and the worst acts of evil were perpetrated against Jews, almost from time in memoriam. In our free and democratic society, most people cannot imagine anything so outrageous as the Holocaust, but it happened in a civilized, sophisticated  society, so it can happen again. The enemy isn’t one type, it’s many. It is well documented that the political extreme right and the extreme left are both anti-Semitic; and radical Islamists and Neo Nazis have much in common. They desire to eradicate those who don’t agree with them, starting with the Jews, and both operate in a free society. We must learn not to tolerate the intolerable, to quote Eli Weisel, Nobel peace prize winner.

This past Saturday, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, as Jewish men, women and children prayed, with their sanctuary open to all who wished to enter, a man entered with guns loaded and committed a heinous act of carnage, killing 11 people and wounding more. I can’t stop this from happening here in Canada. I can’t just pray for a light to shine in the hearts of evil men and women who would destroy the Jewish people, our institutions, and would like to destroy our one small Jewish state, but I can perhaps make a small contribution, and I must. So, I am leaving March of Dimes Canada to devote my time to working with organizations that hope to fight and defeat antisemitism, antiZionism, anti-Judaism.

Let these words from journalist Justin Amler be embedded in your thoughts:

Anti-Semitism didn’t explode today – it’s been exploding for so many years. It’s the oldest hatred of all – and also the most unifying, because it is the one thing the extremists on the left and the extremists on the right can agree on. Since World War II ended, it often lived on the fringe of society, but not anymore and hasn’t been for a while. Now it’s mainstream, is festered in political parties around the world, broadcast by those who call themselves leaders of morality and liberal values.

Hatred is uniting and Jews are once again – as they’ve often found themselves throughout history – caught in the middle.

Today, Jews were attacked, not because they were left wing or right wing. Not because they were conservative or liberal. Not because they supported Trump or supported Clinton. They were attacked because they were Jews – it’s really that simple.




Now What?

President & CEOs Remarks to the MODC AGM, July 24, 2018

andria spindel, president and CEOI delivered the following a few days ago to our senior staff and board members, and would like to share my thoughts as I prepare to transition to retirement after 37+ years at March of Dimes.

Its my pleasure to once again bring forward a review of the prior fiscal year, and my own reflections on how we as a corporation have performed, how our team at the top has performed, and to provide some comments on the next fiscal year. Generally, it’s my opportunity to personally acknowledge many who have contributed to our successes, shed light on any significant issues, say a few words of inspiration about the year to come and our ongoing vision of creating a society that is inclusive of people with disabilities.

This year’s AGM however, is a special and significant one for me; it’s my last as MODC’s senior staff person, my last in what has been a dream job with an incredible agency, the culmination of my role as leader of, and partner with, an incredibly talented and collegial team, the moment in time to consider what I have failed to accomplish and to acknowledge what is yet undone. I can’t any more pledge to make it all happen or give assurances but I do feel that I am in a position to share some observations as I begin the transition process.

Let me begin by acknowledging the tremendous support I have had over my 37+ years, from the Board, local volunteers, program volunteers, fundraising volunteers, and many dozens of committee members. March of Dimes has attracted some of the best people to carry our message, to inspire donors and friends, and to deliver many aspects of our services. Board members have always served us well and with honorable intentions, being aligned with our vision and mission. There have certainly been challenges, and challenging directors, but none without good intentions, none without some merit and I have learned and thrived in the main from the talented members of our two boards.

I cannot say enough about our wonderful, talented and dedicated staff. From the first 183 staff when I came in 1981 to our over 2000 staff now, I am proud of everyone. It’s been my goal to create a learning environment, providing opportunities for individuals to thrive and grow, and to define personally how best to give to the people we serve. Staff innovate and create programs, they imagine the impossible and make it possible, the staff at March of Dimes and our Non Profit Housing Corporation, are never without resource challenges, time constraints and complex and competing demands, but somehow it all gets done and the best is done for our consumers. The data on consumer satisfaction supports what I am saying. We are enhancing lives, creating opportunities and solutions for independence!

I wish I had time to name all of the people who have contributed to my joy on a daily basis, coming to work has made me happy. My children, all now young adults, understand that as CEO of March of Dimes, I have been fully dedicated to our purpose while also being fully devoted to them and there have been times, when they might have doubted that as children but today, as my daughter begins her career in an NGO, my eldest finishes his certification as an American Sign Language Interpreter and my middle son demonstrates the caring and compassion of a mature man, I see that March of Dimes has touched their hearts too.

Well, it has been another challenging, exciting, fruitful year for March of Dimes, thanks to all people mentioned above and thousands more – our donors and funders, and here are just some of the highlights:

March of Dimes grew by another 4.6% overall gross revenue and exceeded the budgeted net of $1M by $1.68M or more than double.

New offices opened in Winnipeg and Victoria, new services also began in North Simcoe Muskoka LHIN area, and continues to expand.

Our agency engaged in a new and radical venture, we purchased a private rehab company to expand our employment and ABI services into BC and establish March of Dimes Canada as a provider of record, positioning our agency in that province in such a way that we can bid on more such contracts.

Both Employment Services and Independent Living Services demonstrated that we have definitely addressed the goal of diversifying our revenues as established in the last 2 strategic plans. They both produced high net revenues from proprietary or fee based sources.

March of Dimes transformed a collaborative relationship with Stroke Recovery Association of BC into a full blown alliance and provided both governance and back office supports, and also new program development support, funding additional staff in the Vancouver office which now houses both our organizations.

The third year of our accessible mobile technology project has opened the vista for us no how technology can improve lives, without huge costs.

March of Dimes Canada Non Profit Housing Corporation began a series of construction projects after more than a decade without growth. Winning bids for grants in Sarnia, Sudbury and Hamilton has enabled this expansion and put our full spectrum of independent living in supportive housing front and center in these communities where we serve the most severely disabled people within the community.

Community Engagement, Integration, Inclusion are great concepts and at March of Dimes we make them ways of living, by offering an array of services to support people, by being a strong advocacy voice, and by communicating at all levels in the public sphere. Every day we are making people aware of the needs and rights of people with disabilities, and we are encouraging and training people with such lived experience to speak out, to demonstrate and demand their essential rights. Whether it’s through our Life Skills program, Conductive Education, Recreation or Government Relations and Advocacy, March of Dimes is helping people achieve their personal goals and then moving the goal post, reaching ever further to find successful tools and interventions to enable the dreams of children and adults with disabilities.

This evening you will hear about an important area that has expanded dramatically within our agency, as we re-entered the field of research, focusing on applied research designed at helping us to understand the best ways to achieve the best outcomes. With the appointment of Dr. Emily Nalder as March of Dimes Canada Paul J.J. Martin Professor, we have completed studies on the outcomes of our own services, attracted student and faculty research projects alike, partnered in several research projects, and served as advisors on external projects. Dr. Nalder will highlight the work of the last 3 ½ years of her 5 year appointment, and I trust get everyone excited about how research can inform our practice and further policies that benefit people with disabilities.

While, there have been some struggles to achieve our goals, the results have not been without learning, without sincerity, nor without accomplishment in forgoing new relationships. Challenges are but opportunities and at March of Dimes we accept and even encourage challenges.

We have become part of several international communities of academics and researchers, primarily through our role in the Bridging, Aging and Disability International Network, the International Centre for Disability Research at University of Toronto and the International Initiative on Disability Leadership. Over the past few years, I have travelled abroad for March of Dimes, speaking about our work and seeking collaborations with peers in other jurisdictions, and have fostered this same approach among other staff, so that we are finding the best of the best practices to inform our work.

I would truly be remiss if I didn’t also speak of both the challenges and successes of our Fund Development, Marketing and Communications Department which every year has to reinvent itself to address all the new ways that people in society are communicating and responding to human needs. We are operating on many social media platforms, delivering content in all formats, and searching out partners, sponsors and funders at all levels of government and across communities. The Department has significantly stretched to support non profit housing also, and leads the capital campaigns where we are building new supportive living accommodation. Often ahead of the rest of the organization, the department finds local business partners to deliver content, organize events, attract media, and develop March of Dimes Canada volunteer committees at the local level. Despite competitive markets, which are increasing with new charities being formed every year, the staff have managed year over year to grow the net for our community-based services.

We fundraise in all provinces now and while not physically in the Northern territories, we do have specialized services for Inuit from Nunuvat whose lives have been significantly impacted by an acquired brain injury. These services are unique, and designed in conjunction with the government of the territories to provide a safe supportive environment for these Canadians to experience the best opportunities for independent living.

I could go on and on about our accomplishments, and would, but you will be presented with the full story by Jerry Lucas later tonight within the Board meeting, at which time the actual numbers will be presented as to the revenue and expense allocation to programs, and the numbers of people served. All of this is possible, because years ago, we put in place the tools, policies and procedures for accountability and transparency; taught staff to plan and to measure what they do, to have informed clients, to have a consumer oriented approach to service, to adhere to administrative processes, financial controls, HR legislation and more, BUT above all, to think creatively and have good judgement. We seek compliance with a host of procedures AND we also seek to foster integrity; its not a matter of “but”, but “both”, that makes our team so successful – strong direction and individual action.

A word about the challenges unfulfilled. I cannot leave March of Dimes without acknowledging that I may not have accomplished all that I or the Board would have wished. Some of these wishes include – launching and delivering a national service that covers Canada coast to coast, is fully funded and brings together the wrap around services MODC offers to keep people in the community. We have began this in launching an “After Stroke” website, but there is much more to be done.

I would have liked to see Conductive Education embedded in our social and health services funding framework, and as part of the early childhood education offerings. We have made significant strides, but its imperative that more be done if this unique, holistic, cost effective program is to continue to be available in Canada.

We have just begun to explore new technologies for people with disabilities, while still working very successfully on low tech solutions through DesignAbility. In the immediate future, I would hope that March of Dimes will consider expanding the latter and investing in the former, presumably through major partnerships with universities, colleges and technical institutions.

Our first national study of significance was funded through the National Center of Excellence, called AGEWELL. It provides clear recommendations for a Canada in which there is equitable access to Assistive Devices/Technology for those with any functional impairment. I have hopes that it will serve as the basis for policy advocacy and education – perhaps giving March of Dimes a lead position in regards to provincial, federal and territorial deliberations. And of course, we have been active on the federal level as collaborators and consultants on the new Accessible Canada Act. I think my dream of an accessible, inclusive Canada is one step closer to reality, and we played no small part in getting it here.

I must stay I have no regrets. If I could have done more, been more astute, more sensitive, more enlightened, I do apologize.

For any missed opportunity, I apologize, and hope the champions within March of Dimes will grab the next opportunities; and continue to make a difference.

The question we have asked in this year’s AGM and Annual report is “Now What?” Its begun already to be a year of change with the recent departure of 3 senior staff, with the addition of our vibrant new Chief External Affairs Officer and talented Director of IT and Information Systems, and it will continue to be a year of change when I leave, and our COO begins his own transition. Neither Jerry Lucas nor I probably ever imagined we would get to these days. So for me, now what? I envision several things for myself: more time with my 3 millennial aged children and first grandson, Ezra, born May 29th. I hope to enjoy some R&R doing things I love, such as gardening, biking, reading and my return to needle craft. But, I am also taking on a new challenge and I decided to share it with you. In our fast paced, cyber connected, over populated world, there is a growing menace called anti-semitism, hatred of Jews and hatred of Israel. I have been increasingly engaged in attempts to confront and combat this unspeakable evil and thus “now what?” for me, means doing more to educate people whose desire to hurt or eliminate my community is paramount. So, I am starting here – tonight. For Canada, to be truly inclusive, it means accepting diversity, eliminating hatred, combating ignorance and bigotry, defending freedom of religion and expression, and the values that thousands of Canadians previously died to defend. I hope I can make some small contribution.

Once again, thanks for a great 37 years!





A Tribute to Dr. David MacKenzie Logan

Only a few months ago, on January 17th, we lost one of the longest serving Board members of March of Dimes Canada, March of Dimes Canada Non Profit Housing Corporation and our US subsidiary, Rehabilitation Foundation for Disabled Persons. David Logan passed away at age 79, and at this time, we honour him and remember him.

Dr. David Logan was a member of the Board when I joined Ontario March of Dimes in May 1981. David made consistently strong contributions; he served as chair of many committees and was Chair of the organization for 3 years, telling me he was waiting for the time he could assume another multi year term. He served many years as Chair of our non-profit housing corporation and he loved that corporation, as much as he loved MODC, because he could see the significant tangible results – homes for people, people about whom he cared a great deal.

David was that rare individual who read and worked in many fields, a real eclectic when it came to his interests and philosophy. He was a scientist who valued those with lived experience; he was a biologist who also loved and taught American history; he was a man of ideas who built homes for his friends, fixed cars and tractors, and farmed outside of Toronto; he was chivalrous in my view, and a man who supported equality for women throughout his entire adult life. He demonstrated that one could pursue intellectual work and carry out manual work, for he loved both.

David, whom we all experienced as “larger than life” was actually a very shy man; an introvert who held his friends fast and was extremely loyal, he eschewed crowds and chose not to attend big fancy events, often requiring me to cajole him to represent MODC at fundraisers. He didn’t want recognition or honours so to bring him the Volunteer Canada Award, I had to set up a secret plan with York University, where he was an Associate Professor for many years, and sneak into a class in order to present him with this Award. Yet, it was David who created the Paul Martin Sr. Rehabilitation and Biomedical Research Fund at March of Dimes and then the Jonas Salk Award so that we could honour great Canadian scientists. He wanted MOD to be both a contributor to science and a recognized leader in acknowledging and using science that can help improve the lives of people with disabilities.

As another example of both his determination to do good and his solitary style, David would help me and other staff to create committees and then choose not to have other members. He was fine with committees of one which always got a lot of work done. Yet, he worked well with our board, understanding governance beyond the average volunteer. David made sure that fundraising was on the agenda at board meetings so that every director knew he or she had to support the organization, directly and in many other ways.

I enjoyed David’s friendship and mentorship. David taught me to cherish life and share its joys, for we live in a great country, with a focus on opportunity and equality and we can make the most of both for the benefit of all.

Disability Leadership


The above photo, left to right, Bruce Bonyhady, Chair, Australian National Disability Insurance Agency, Andria Spindel, President and CEO, March of Dimes Canada, Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, Canada – Sydney, March 2, 2017

Disability Leadership is many things, including personal empowerment for individuals who have a disability, sector innovation by service providers who keep abreast of or ahead of new ideas and challenges, and community or cohort leadership which engages a group of people with and without disabilities to help build greater capacity of those with lived experience and a society that values everyone and is inclusive of people who have a disability. So, I have been reflecting on how well March of Dimes, our team and I do in building “disability leadership” in all its manifestations.

During the week of February 27th  to March 4th, I had a unique opportunity to participate in the International Initiative on Disability Leadership (IIDL) in Sydney, Australia, and to see how people with lived experience took the initiative to build a national campaign for a nationally funded and delivered disability insurance scheme. I also heard from disability policy leaders in government, the NGO sector and the disability advocacy movement, about their various roles and relationships. It very much reminded me of the many ways in which March of Dimes Canada has contributed over many decades to improving the quality of life for people with disabilities in Canada.

From the earliest years in which we employed the highest proportion of people with lived experience, when at least one third of our board of directors were people with lived experience, we have continuously innovated to deliver new or improved services, and to have input from those with lived experience. I was reminded that March of Dimes was instrumental in getting people with disabilities included as a class or category for which human rights are guaranteed in our provincial and federal Human Rights Acts, also in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. March of Dimes was providing leadership training to people with lived experience when in 1981 we received a federal grant to go into schools across Ontario and talk about disability/ability and accessibility, and we hired 15 people to deliver this program. We reached over 600,000 students in 3 years. We funded and supported many self- help organizations, enabling them to build their capacity, to represent people with disabilities.

March of Dimes invests hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in staff development, helping to build a professional team dedicated to and leading in the delivery of quality community support services, always encouraging forward thinking, as well as creative and challenging developments for providing a quality of life to those who have a disability. Our cohort leaders include the many peer support chapters, the engineers and designers in DesignAbility chapters, the March of Dimes Canada Committee volunteers, the partners in collaboratives that we support that give rise to new programs.

I think history will tell that March of Dimes made a huge impact in disability leadership, and will continue to do so. I invite staff, consumers, volunteers, and other readers to comment.



Be True to Yourself and Remember Those Who Influenced Your Life

I have had the honour of twice being asked to give the convocation speech at U of Guelph-Humber and hope that some of the words I imparted will resonate with the students who attended, and with my friends and colleagues who read this post. I am adding a link to the video of  my presentation, and a PDF version, in addition to having the words printed here, hoping one or the other format will be accessible. This is my Convocation Speech, June 20, 2016 to the Business Administration graduates 2016.

Download the PDF: Convocation Speech 2016 (2)

Andria Spindel, Nominator and Senior Administration

Left to right: Dr. Charlotte Yates, Provost and VP Academic, University of Guelph-Humber; Dr.John Walsh, Vice Provost, University of Guelph-Humber; Dr. Andria Spindel, President and CEO, March of  Dimes Canada; Audrey McKinney, Chair, Board of Governors, Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning; Dr. George Bragues, Program Head and Assistant Vice Provost, University of Guelph-Humber; Dr. Chris Whitaker,  President and CEO, Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning

Convocation Speech to University of Guelph, Humber Campus, Business Students

June 20, 2016

Good Day Provost Yates, President Whitaker, Vice-Provost Walsh, Platform guests, Faculty, Students, Parents, and Friends;

It was a lovely surprise and it is a great honour and pleasure to have been invited back by the University of Guelph – Humber to deliver a second Convocation address. At the convocation in 2013 where I was also incredibly honoured to receive a Doctorate of Laws Honoris Causa, I chose to reflect on the lessons in life that I had learned from my children, and how they could be applied by everyone in helping to build an inclusive society for people with disabilities. I wanted to impart to parents, faculty and students,  the idea that not only are our children special because they are inquisitive, imaginative, incorrigible, delightful, disconcerting, challenging, sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening, and most importantly, unique and wonderful people, but they may teach us, the adults in their lives,  in mysterious ways. Our kids show us ourselves sometimes, they show us the world up close because they don’t see the far and wide,  and in interpreting or even magnifying their perspective, we, the parents,  can get a whole new perspective on life.

Today, I want to share with you, some reflections I have had about the various people who have influenced my life (other than my three 20 something children); and my purpose in doing so, is to encourage each and every one of you, the graduating class of 2016, to think about life lessons you’ve learned from those you love, from people you remember who may have come into your lives, sometimes only briefly, or who have remained important to you until now. Think of people who have impacted you, in your attitudes, beliefs, choices, relationships, goals, or preferences in any way, and how they may have influenced you. Think about how you would honour them, if what they shared remains important to you, if it has influenced you, and how you intend to use the life lesson that they imparted to you. Take a moment and think about one individual who has meant a lot to you, and why that is so.

Sometimes we have a long, enduring relationship with people, such as with parents or grandparents, friends made in kindergarten or same age cousins, people with whom you may have enjoyed many personal experiences. Here is the challenge. Do you recall some special or positive message that you gained from that special person?  Sometimes, we have but a fleeting or short-lived contact with an individual, perhaps a colleague, a summer romance, a university roommate or class mate, a prof, a priest, imam or rabbi, or a project partner, or even a fleeting encounter with a stranger, and it has a lasting impact on our lives. No matter the source of the contact, it strikes me that these relationships may often have a great influence on us that we don’t at the time acknowledge, nor even notice. Sometimes we don’t even know the source of something that influenced our thinking or behaviour. Such influences are obviously important, for they shape our personality, our morality, our life course, and our overall contributions to our families and society. Yes, you have spent years acquiring knowledge, learning or honing new skills, and gathering together the elements of a necessary resumé for your next adventure, a job. Does it really matter if small gestures affected you, or influential people in your life helped set your direction? Does it matter if you don’t know where these influences, these ideas and attitudes come from?  I think it does.

When you think back on your academic years, the hard work, and the social life, the stress and anxiety, and the happy times you have experienced at the University of Guelph, I hope you will think about the friendships you’ve made, the people you met and the very culture of the university experience.  Take away a recollection of how you were when you came to university a few years ago, and along with knowing what you have formally learned, think  of how you have developed, matured, taken on challenges, identified opportunities, gained insights into how others think and feel, how “the world turns”,  so to speak. Recognize what is in your heart, what you now can offer the world, and how to translate that into action.  I would hope that some of the “lessons” learned include values such as respect, tolerance, mutuality, collegiality, kindness, cooperation, patience, perseverance, commitment, curiosity, a desire to pursue greater insight, to exchange opinions, analyze situations, and take a longer term perspective on your decisions. Not everyone will have encountered the same issues, be they positive or negative at the time, but life lessons can and will be drawn from many everyday situations. So think about this fact, be open-minded and critical, be aware of what you have absorbed. Be aware of the people you encounter and say thank you to them.

Let me give you a few personal examples of what I mean when I speak about small exchanges or experiences that can influence your life, that need be taken into account.  When I was in high school, decades ago, I was shy and unconfident, and my late father was an introverted intelligent man, who worked long hours at a job he did not enjoy, that did not feel fulfilling to him, though it provided for our family of 4, he preferred reading and watching sports on television, to any social activities. I thought of him as a bit of a recluse, but one day, when I helped out at his store, he talked to me about being kind to friends and strangers alike. What he said, has been played over in my head for over 50 years, and continues to affect me. He said that he noticed when he was in high school that most young people ignored the students who were shy, who were different, who were not popular, the students who were not demonstrative often got no attention. Maybe they didn’t mind, maybe they were just private, quiet, unassuming. I don’t know, but I always imagined these might be “nerdy” kids if that word would have been applied in the late 1930s. However, one young woman really caught my father’s attention, because she said “Hello” and smiled equally to all whom she passed, including those others ignored. He always thought her consideration and friendliness was outstanding. He never actually  used such grandiose terms as “inclusive” or “magnanimous”, but the fact is, he made me aware that everyone deserves consideration, and that this young woman had a generous heart. That in acknowledging others, even with a smile, this young woman brought smiles to the faces of others. I think you will find that if you do smile at people, they will most often smile back. That makes any day a better day. I am reminded that a little kindness goes a long way.

My grandfather, an immigrant from Poland with a grade 3 education, was a gentle, soft spoken man who cared deeply and committedly for his family, extending to dozens of relatives. He had been fortunate to leave Europe before the Holocaust and successfully brought many of his family to safe harbour in Canada, Some were not so lucky, but when my grandfather spoke about his life in Poland, he did not recount the instances of discrimination, of outright anti-Semitism, or the loss of several branches of his extended family. Instead he told me, that truly there were good people in Poland and that we should seek out the good people, that in every culture and community, among every faith and ethnicity, there are good people, and they are no different from us in their wants and needs, their desires, and hopes. So, I have travelled extensively around the world, and always remembered to see the good in all people, and to find the people with whom I can share what’s important, and to build lasting friendships with people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and creeds. We all have a basic human spirit with the capacity to cherish friends and value differences in a positive way.

When I began my career, following graduation from UBC’s School of Social Work, I went to work in a small provincial agency, the Social Planning and Research Council, based in Vancouver. One of my first tasks when I was only 23 was to hire my own secretary. It turned out that the woman I hired had 12 children, all of them living at home when she began working with me.  Jokingly she said to me, after shocking me with the facts about the make-up of her family, that arranging dinner was as simple as opening a can of tuna. Of course I never believed that one can fed them all, but it was Jenny’s warmth, humour, her fortitude and quiet persistence in finding her own fulfillment when coming back to work while raising a family, that has stayed with me. I admired her, learned about patience, resilience, and compassion from Jenny, as well as how to stretch a dollar.

My second hire was for a part time colleague as the work around me grew, and again, I hired someone older and more experienced than myself.  The woman I hired was twice my age, and of European background. She had a firm, quiet dignity, a great command of expressive language, and a twinkling eye, and she spoke often about learning from others, about interpreting every moment as a teaching or learning moment. So, I thank my dear departed friend Lenore, for influencing me to think about how small things matter. She spoke about and demonstrated integrity, respect, dignity, and tenacity. Sometimes in words, sometimes in allegory, sometimes just in recounting her own struggles.

She was a dear friend, though the age of my mother, but a true friend who would have pulled me out of any hole, covered my backside so to speak, or sat me down and talked me through any conflict. Always she emphasized this, be true to yourself.

One last story, and this comes from a very much more spiritual place, but the context in which I heard it is less important than the substance of what I heard. I can’t recall which rabbi delivered this message.  I attended very few synagogue services in my early adult life, though I visited synagogues in every country to which I travelled whether in Asia, Africa, or Europe. I recall a sermon about the importance of “truth or loving kindness”, and when kindness is more important than truth. Now, who would put those two words together in an either / or statement? Ought we not always to speak Truth? Ought we not always to be Kind?

Well, this is not about speaking  truth to power, which I uphold as a virtue, this is not about breaking bad news to people who need to know something even if unpleasant, nor about speaking  the truth in testament which for legal and ethical reason is an imperative. Truth must be upheld and should rule the day in order for justice to be upheld. However, in human relationships, truth can hurt, such as when someone pointedly tells you that your dress is not attractive, or your friend has gossiped about you, or when you use it as a weapon to get something you want. Think of friendships and the lasting impact of speaking a truth that is not necessary to convey.  Softening a message in order to be kind, such as in complementing someone, accepting their contribution or gift, acknowledging their offer of assistance even when you don’t need it, are ways of expressing kindness and showing appreciation to another person. Sometimes, just saying nothing is the kindness. This is I think an important area for consideration, especially today when we live in an unbelievably revealing world where too much information is often a problem.  I am sure this will lead to debate at your dinner table if you ask, “is truth always an imperative in human relationships“?  Some people might think I am advising that if you have an affair you ought not disclose it, or if you have cheated a friend, you should not tell the truth.  I am not speaking of deception, nor condoning any lies. I am trying to define that small place for not speaking unkindly, not spreading gossip, not destroying another’s confidence or reputation, nor for emboldening oneself at the expense of another person.

So, I stand before you, humbled by the experience of being here to address you. I know some of you have immediate after graduation plans and others of you not so much, but I am sure you will all find your way. Have confidence in yourselves, celebrate your achievements, both scholastic and in all other areas of your life, go forward and have much success. I know my words will be soon forgotten, but this is what I hope for each of you; that you pay attention to small things in life, acknowledge people who come into your life, think for yourself about what matters and about what should be remembered, use what you learn to influence both your life and the world, and let it all be in a positive, constructive and humanizing way. Remember, all people matter, at the core, no matter our various cultures, ages, faith, ethnicity, gender or education. All people want a better future and together we—now YOU—can achieve it. My personal best wishes to each and every one of you. Have a joyous day !

Andria Spindel, President and CEO, March of Dimes Canada





Employment Standards in the AODA

On March 9th, 2016, I had the pleasure of being a keynote speaker at one of the business conferences of the Conference Board of Canada, held in Mississauga. The topic was the Ontario Employment Standard and because it is so very important, and March of Dimes Canada is both a significant employer, an advocate and a consultant on accessibility standards, I am including my entire presentation here.


Employment Services represents almost 18% of March of Dimes Canada’s budget, and probably a greater percentage of the actual work done by March of Dimes, given that we provide vocational assistance to over 7,000 people with disabilities each year.  As like many Canadian families, I have firsthand experience with the economic, psychological and social impact of disability, having had a mother who suffered permanent mobility challenges from the time I was very young and she only 28 years old.

My focus today is on three aspects of today’s theme, Making Employment Practices More Accessible in Ontario. Firstly, to present the experience of March of Dimes, a major employer in the not for profit sector, secondly to underscore some of the “employment practices” that might most easily and immediately be considered in your own workplace, and thirdly to offer March of Dimes’ support to businesses which are committed to meeting the new Accessible Employment Standard in Ontario.

To set the context for March of Dimes experience as an employer, I think it’s very important to understand the philosophical, political and cultural underpinnings to our approach to fostering total acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities.  March of Dimes was founded in the early 1950s to provide lifesaving support to people affected by poliomyelitis, and to fund a cure or treatment for survivors of this crippling disease.  Once the polio vaccine was universally approved and immunization a public health program, March of Dimes offered a variety of services to the survivors who had lasting disabilities and through the 60s and 70s expanded to serve people with all types of physical disabilities.  This was a time of changing attitudes about disability, from one of despair, isolation and even disengagement, to one of hopefulness, integration and engagement.   In the mid to late 60s, those with disabilities had not yet been given many opportunities, but were beginning to move back to community from large scale residential facilities and from sheltered workshops into mainstream employment.  Citizen advocacy was on the rise, and following the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and then the women’s movement, the disability movement took hold in the 70s, with leadership from among people with lived experience.  Sometimes, this was encouraged and even fostered by NGO’s and funded by government.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, March of Dimes had a workforce of about 180 people that rose to several hundred by 1984, and at that time 30% of our employees were people with disabilities.  We were very much ahead of the pack, our employment statistics were better than perhaps those of any other Canadian company, in any sector, and the type of jobs were quite varied.  The range of positions held by those with disabilities included Procurement Officer, Program Manager, Administrative Assistant, Regional Director, Assistive Devices Counsellor, Government Relations Assistant, and Fund raiser.  There was no employment equity legislation, there were no regulated quotas, no ODA or AODA, but at March of Dimes, there was a strong board and management commitment to the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities. One of the early successes related to a subsidiary entity called Operation Reliance, that was headed by a former Canadian Olympic skier, Wade Hampton, who himself became disabled as an adult when stricken with polio.  Wade became a successful stock broker and radio broadcaster, but not before he dedicated himself to the pursuit of fair employment for people with disabilities.  He was one of my early heroes, serving on our board for over 40 years and never losing his focus on equity for people with disabilities.  He was a great example of what people with disabilities had to do to prove their employability, they had to be better than able-bodied employees, look particularly “normal”, not challenge their employer about accommodation needs, and take great risks, especially if working meant getting off income support when it was not easy to get back on such a program.  March of Dimes sought to find like-minded and aligned employers, and in the late 1980s we closed all sheltered workshops in favour of vocational rehabilitation, job placement and job coaching and worked with employers to identify and sometimes modify work that could be done by an individual who had some limitations. Thus our Employment Services department became professionalized, work expanded and our clients became those job ready or seeking training and support to become job ready.

Wade Hampton represented March of Dimes in Ottawa when the late Honourable Flora McDonald first introduced Employment Equity legislation federally in 1995, requiring government and its agencies and contractors to set the example and hire people with disabilities.  It was new territory in Canada, and March of Dimes was one of the first to push for this legislation.  However, beginning in 1994, our own population of people with disabilities declined as a proportion of our workforce, and has steadily declined so I feel a need to address this with you.

Growth in our funding and service provision has largely been through expansion of attendant care support, this means hiring many front line workers who provide aids to daily living such as feeding, bathing, dressing and other personal services.  This is work that requires a significant degree of strength and mobility.  It has meant that if we include all employees, now only 3% of our workforce has a disability, but excluding the almost 900 attendants, 8% of our workforce today is composed of people with disabilities.  We know that not everyone will self-identify on our employment equity hire form. No one is compelled to disclose of course.  And we know from public policy and health studies that the largest disability affecting employees today is in the mental health field, so bear this in mind when implementing best practices because this population too must have your consideration, and will be far less likely to self-identify.

Through action and advocacy, we subsequently worked on provincial legislation to address all aspects of inclusion and were thus very much involved in the formation and adoption of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act which was proclaimed in 2001 and implemented in 2002, and later the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005.  Because the ODA had limitations, was complaints based and did not achieve it’s hoped for outcome, successor legislation took a different approach.  The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the AODA, deviates significantly from the ODA, in that it proscribes standards for implementation, monitoring and compliance, and has an enforcement mechanism, though that has yet to be demonstrably implemented.  This Act states what is to be done and does not focus on disability but on accessibility, laying out changes in many aspects of business processes and infrastructure, that could constitute a cultural shift, redefining how society should operate, and focusing on areas in which many sectors can improve in order to achieve full inclusion for people with disabilities.

The former legislation outlined a complaints based process for which a Human Rights complaint need be brought against an employer or facility that discriminated against a person or denied a service by virtue of that person’s disability. The onus was on that person to bring a compliant and prove discrimination.  The onus for accessibility under the AODA is on the employer, owner or provider of a service to report that they meet the standard or if not, how they are going to go about meeting it and by when.

The AODA is a major move forward, a first in Canada, in setting standards or best practices in the areas of customer service, employment, transportation, communication, public spaces and the built environment.  Failure to meet it can, but seldom does result in a penalty.  This fact may not be helpful.  March of Dimes has contributed to all the reports studying the impact of the AODA and supports a position for increased enforcement, for as with other legislation it makes a difference. For example, we don’t just talk about seat belts, speed limits, parking restrictions, no smoking environments, etc., they are all the law and all are enforced, sometimes with lots of peer pressure as well as legal mechanisms.  However, our primary commitment is to educate the public, the owners and employers, and to help all achieve the desired outcome, full inclusion of people with disabilities.

So, how have we addressed the AODA internally and what has worked?  We were sure we would satisfy every standard because internally we already had an affirmative hiring policy, accessible documentation, a policy to only  lease or rent totally accessible facilities whether for office space or a one time meeting, conference or event; and that along with a resource tight budget, was not always easy.  We had experience with adaptive equipment for employees with a disability, from accessible hardware and software, use of a TTY phone, to hosting a helper dog for a visually impaired employee.  We had provided flex time and were the first in Canada to challenge the insurance industry on their exclusionary coverage of people with a prior condition, showing them that a permanent disability did not automatically mean a higher rate of claims for illness, but in fact that employees with disabilities often had better than average attendance records.

However, we did a thorough scan after first creating an internal AODA committee in 2011 with representation from every department, and from across the agency geographically.  With the first and then subsequent standards, we did an audit and we formulated policies that articulated our commitment to meeting the AODA standard and even exceeding it.  We invited people to tell us what needed improvement and we communicated our progress.  We posted our commitment in every office and provided updates in our employee newsletter.  Like all of you no doubt, in meeting the Customer Service Standard, we required every employee to complete a training program, ours is online, and we include a commitment to this standard in every vendor and consulting contract. For employees with a disability to see a company taking seriously the fulfilment of their AODA commitment, adds credibility, builds loyalty, reduces feelings of exceptionality and builds team work.

I would like to provide a few facts for you to consider how far we have come, know how far we have yet to go, and to see the pathway to getting there.  Let me cite an example of a major cultural shift, affecting people born with a development disability, often complicated with physical limitations.

At the turn of the 20th century, the average life expectancy of a person with Down’s Syndrome was 9 years and in the 1950s it was about age 21.  The life expectancy for people with this condition has slowly risen each decade, to the point that now there are national and international meetings about people Aging with a Development Disability.  In the 1980s, there were only sheltered workshops for people with an intellectual or development disability, but a decade or two earlier, there were only residential facilities where there was no work, little if any activities, and probably no intellectual stimulation as our ideas were archaic, suggesting that people with a developmental disability could not learn.  Medical advancements as well as social advancements mean that people with such difficulties have been helped to live longer, to live in the community, to receive an education, to achieve a level of independence, and to contribute to society.

The Houston Chronicle online has been running a series of excellent articles on employment for people with disabilities, covering the law, statistics, workplace practices and even employee responsibilities.  Here’s an example:

Employment can be a difficult prospect for adults with developmental disabilities, and the U.S. Census estimates that only 20 percent of developmentally disabled adults are employed nationally.  Yet jobs are important for disabled adults who seek greater independence and financial self-reliance.  Knowing the types of jobs available for developmentally disabled adults is an important step in preparing for employment prospects.

Today, we know that people with an intellectual impairment can be found working in many different settings, from retail shops, to restaurants to packaging and more, and it only requires that one assess the exact needs or tasks to be done and provide on the job training and support for the successful placement of a person with a developmental disability.  Knowing the exact tasks, matching the individual to those tasks is what is primary.

March of Dimes had a high proportion of employees who had had polio, and became a leading advocate for those who years after contracting the disease experienced Post-Polio Syndrome and often were too fatigued to continue to work, retired young, or even passed away.  Yet, we have never moved off our position that people of all abilities be considered for employment, that it’s important to match skills and knowledge with the real needs of an employer, and to provide job accommodations to enable employment for people with disabilities.

I would like to cite some examples to give credence to what I am saying.

In the 90s we acquired software driven by speech for an employee who had a significant physical disability that included spasticity so typing was not easy.  She was assessed as typing 8 words per minute, but she did all of the job well and we had no issues.  We could see the huge struggle that this employee endured and the extra hours she worked to meet the job requirements.  With provincial funding, we were able to add a talk-to-type program to her computer.  This required a lot of work on her part initially as she trained the software to recognize her speech patterns and pronunciation in order to produce accurate copy.  In addition, this young woman could not adequately handle paper so filing was difficult.  When we learned that her father assisted her on weekends to get her filing done, we changed the job so that someone else did filing and she focused on key aspects of the job.  For despite the level of difficulty that she experienced due to cerebral palsy, this employee had a BA from a very reputable Canadian university and had shown excellent skills with people, in government relations, in consumer service, and in her work ethic.

For many years, we had a Community Services Manager at head office who had a vision impairment, so much so that she required a guide dog in order to navigate the building, the streets, and the wider community.  Despite that, this Manager worked on a computer, handled our public advocacy portfolio, handled municipal representation on our behalf, spoke publicly and organized meetings, events and a variety of activities for people with disabilities.  The accommodation that we provided was first and foremost, a welcome mat for the guide dog, and secondly, software that enabled the employee to work with little vision. This individual was raising three biological children and seemed to have no end of energy as a parent and a full time employee.

Today, I have a few more current examples of accessible business practices for your consideration.  These practices include documenting individual work accommodation plans for employees when required, especially after an injury or illness, create an active return to work process, as part of the integrated disability management system, and overall provide support and flexibility to enable an employee to assess their own capabilities and contribute ideas on how best to accommodate.

For example, an employee with low vision provided her supervisor and our Health & Safety Coordinator with medical documentation and an assessment on her functional abilities.  She required some assistive device and ergonomically appropriate equipment.  Specialists in the enforcement of visual aids were consulted and priority given to addressing her IT needs also.  With assistance from an outside vendor, she received special software and the applications she needed to be successful.

In the last two years, we modified duties for a long term employee returning to work after a lengthy illness, returned a worker to work post-surgery, and more recently helped an individual return who suffered a concussion on her off time return to work.  Each situation warranted very separate special consideration.  The first employee had travel significantly reduced and some aspects of her job shared, but after several months, she chose to retire because of unrelenting fatigue.  The second employee chose to reduce to part time, and the third employee has received some office set up modifications, flex hours and works more from home as she experiences a transition post-concussion, back to normality.

None of these experiences are unusual and out of the norm.  With an increasingly aging work force, they will be increasingly normal.  Each of the three disabled employees had more than 15 years of service and range in age from 48-71.  I believe key to their successful re-integration in the work place is respect, communication and accommodation.  Not to provide accessibility or accommodation will cost an employer some of his or her best talent, waste training investments and lose role models and knowledge transfer agents.  Hiring new people who have physical disabilities will address talent gaps, societal inequities, provide committed, dedicated employees, enhance customer loyalty, enrich the workplace, and of course avoid penalties.  Doing it for the right reason will bring personal gratification.

At March of Dimes Canada we also know that employers want motivated employees who are reliable and dependable.  It’s important to match candidates to the exact needs of the employer and get someone “fit” for the position.  This is true regardless of a disability, but even more so when placing a person with a disability.  The nature of work is changing the prevalence of disability is changing.  We need collaborative approaches to serve both the employee and employers.  The Accessible Employment Standard of the AODA is a great starting point, because by removing barriers to employment, the goal of candidates increases.

What can March of Dimes offer to assist business?  Whether public or private sector, small, medium or larger companies, our consulting arm, AccessAbility Advantage®, can help you address each of the AODA Standards.  Our joint venture partnership with Quadrangle Architects assures quality in accessibility audits and designs for the built environment, and our various assessors and auditors have experience and training in many aspects of the various standards.

March of Dimes continues to focus on outreach and recruitment of people with disabilities, through a number of steps, including advertising that we are an equity employer, offering a welcoming work environment for people with disabilities, and an accessible workplace.  We continue to strive to be among the best in class by addressing all of the AODA standards. I want to add something very relevant that I learned from our employees who participated in our recent Quality of Work Life survey, a survey conducted every 3 years across our organization, by an independent research firm. While the results on a large number of attributes is very good, you might be surprised by the response to a question about what drives employee engagement, obviously an attribute we value very highly. High engagement generally means high level of satisfaction, loyalty and commitment. In both our 2012 and 2015 surveys, organizational support for diversity was identified as one of the top three drivers of engagement. In 2012 organizational diversity was the number one driver and received a score of 82.3% while in 2015 it was ranked 3rd in importance by the average increased to 84.5% (client satisfaction and employee’s role in the organizational vision were rated 1st and 2nd). The description of this attribute is as follows: March of Dimes Canada values and promotes an environment that supports physical accessibility. People feel that MODC respects and values people of diverse groups including people with disabilities as well as those from minority cultures and ethnic groups.

Our overall focus is on eliminating or preventing discrimination by changing society, creating accessibility for all people, and understanding that everyone in society needs to be taken into consideration, in order to optimize their independence and integration, making an inclusive society.



Another Way I support March of Dimes

Diane Spindel and Andria Spindel

The photo was taken over 9 years ago; my mother passed away on December 25th, 2007. She and I were very close and I still miss her, and most especially when I am with my young adult children and think about all the pleasure they give me, and how much I want to share it with their grandmother. It has caused me to reflect on the many things I want to share, some of which is incorporated in this article I wrote a few years ago. The article was shared with our donors and will be part of our Legacy Newsletter this month. I am sharing it here as another way to bring my mother and her journey into my memory.

“My own mother became disabled when I was only five years old. Perhaps that, more than anything else, has helped me personally understand, in a most profound way, the importance of individuals maintaining their dignity and independence, no matter what the disability. It’s a core value that instructs our every decision here at March of Dimes Canada. This childhood experience deeply impacted my life choices. At age 34, having just started working at March of Dimes Canada, I took the unusual step at that time of making a Planned Gift to 4 charities through the purchase of a life insurance policy, designating the charities as beneficiaries. I understood that it was an inexpensive way for a young person like myself to make a significant difference, to give back in a meaningful way, even though it would only materialize decades later. For me, making a Planned Gift was also a way to honour several of the most important pillars of my life, to formalize these commitments: community, international development, Jewish life, and the inclusion of people with disabilities. It has been my privilege to work at March of Dimes Canada for almost 35 years. While I could not have known at 34, when I purchased my policy, that it would be such a long relationship, I did already know that working with and for people with disabilities was my calling.

Making a Planned Gift to March of Dimes Canada made so much sense to me. During my time here, I have seen the life transformations that come from the services our organization provides to people of all ages and stages of disability. I have met with thousands of people whose lives we have touched, helped to establish programs that address their needs, and seen how advocacy enables change. I have worked with a remarkable team at March of Dimes and know their commitment is a major contributor to the success of the services we provide to the community we serve. I believe in the future of March of Dimes Canada, in the future of an inclusive society and in the benefits of planning now to ensure tomorrow’s important work — and hope that others share these values.

If you have not yet done so, I would encourage everyone to check with a financial advisor to learn more about the benefits of a Planned Gift. In doing so, it’s my sincere hope that you will consider including March of Dimes Canada in your plans. Based on my personal experience, I’m convinced that you will find Planned Giving to be a most rewarding decision.”

Think of Your Worst Day Ever–Then Think Again

The poem below has gone viral and been translated into multiple languages. It was written by an American high school student from a  deeply religious community. While she  has a belief in a “Supreme Being,” some might say she is too traditional or dismiss her as an idealist. In an age of “reason” or post enlightenment, it’s sometimes hard for some of us to get our minds around that which constitutes religious belief, what it means to believe in a “Supreme Being” or Oneness. It’s interesting that this concept was discussed recently on both Canada’s national radio station CBC and in a national newspaper. Why is there even an interest in talking about “God”? This young writer evoked a huge response in people; she helps us see how our individual lives are created by our own inner life.

Worst Day Ever?
by Chanie Gorkin

Today was the absolute worst day ever
And don’t try to convince me that
There’s something good in every day
Because, when you take a closer look,
The world is a pretty evil place.
Even if
Some goodness does shine through once in a while
Satisfaction and happiness don’t last.
And it’s not true that
It’s all in the mind and heart
True happiness can be attained
Only if one’s surroundings are good
It’s not true that good exists
I’m sure that you can agree that
The reality
My attitude
It’s all beyond my control
And you’ll never in a million years hear me say
Today was a very good day.

Now read it from bottom to top, the other way,
And see what I really feel about my day.

Now that you have read this poem, do share what you too think about it. For me, the idea that every day is important, valuable, ephemeral and then gone, is an important guide post for living.  It probably comes with having passed the magic  or mysterious age of 65, and knowing there are not 40 more years down the road. So, now I know that it’s important to make every day relevant, beautiful, lasting…  in memories, in reflections, in hopes and aspirations?

The young woman who wrote this did not know her poem went viral.  I doubt that she wrote to influence others, but she has given a lot of people something to think about, something to believe in. She understands that our thoughts and attitudes, our decisions are ours, and we create our own satisfaction and happiness.

The world is indeed dark in many places these days, and the suffering is immense. It’s imperative that we each take responsibility for our own world view, and bring contentment through our personal perspective, and in so doing, we can indeed influence reality more broadly. I commend Ms Gorkin for her novel, heartfelt poem, and urge others to see the light in the world, and do more to illuminate it.


The ONE Billion, one in every 7 people on Planet Earth has a Disability


Andria Spindel with Javed Abidi. President of Disabled Persons International

The proportion of people with disabilities is greatest in the least developed countries of the world. The poorest of the poor, the most marginalized, and most vulnerable people are those with disabilities. The most exploited and at risk of violence, sexual abuse, neglect, homelessness, and natural disaster, are women and girls with disabilities.  These are the messages supported with documentation and presented this month at the 8th Session of the United Nations Conference of States Parties ( meaning governments) on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). I am part of March of Dimes Canada’s delegation to the conference, at which we have accreditation. I am in NY along with two members of our Government Relations Department, and we have split up to cover as many sessions as possible, including those plenaries at which governments report on their actions towards meeting commitments within CRPD, and side events, sponsored by NGOs, UN agencies, governments and academics.

Of course all is not negative, gains are being made, but not equally around the globe. We’ve learned of progressive legislation, embodying principles of the CRPD, such as in Germany and Australia. Canada sponsored a session on collection and use of data, and highlighted the Canadian Disabilities Survey of 2012, which clearly caused envy among representatives from countries which have zero data on disability, yet experience it significantly and have poor planning mechanisms. I was especially proud, as I listened, to realize that the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, now in its 10th year, could be a model for other jurisdictions. But like many who reported, we need vigilance to ensure compliance, we need enforcement to make it work.
The Israeli delegation from the NGO, Beit Issie Shapiro, partnered with big tech giant Google, small tech company Sesame Enable, and the German and Israeli UN Missions, to present exciting advancements in assistive technology. An American partner provided an interesting context as well showing technology that opens doors for inclusion of people with disabilities.
This conference has several overarching themes including, “Nothing About Us Without Us,” “Achieving Cross Sectionality,” and  “Sustainable Development Goals for All People.” The former has been the battle cry since at least 1981 when the first world wide consumer-driven organization was created in Canada, Disabled Persons International. I remember it well. At this event every session repeated this mantra, every session included significant numbers of people with disabilities and communication in various sign languages and with captioning has been available. No longer is it acceptable to plan services, to deliver services or consider the needs of recipients without their direct involvement.


Andria with Venus Ilagan, CEO of Rehabilitation International

The second theme has been introduced more recently and speaks to the drive to bring marginalized groups together. Since 1981, the voices of different segments of the population with disabilities have built coalitions and alignments, recognizing shared goals for inclusion and access. Now the call is for indigenous people, LGBTQ folks, women’s groups and racialized advocates, to work together with disability advocates to gain rights, to reach full inclusion and equal opportunity.
The last theme is best expressed by the idea that at every table, ie at every issue affecting humankind, let there be a voice for people with disabilities. After all, they are affected too by economic policy, social policy, climate and health care etc. For example,  there are no concerns of women that should not include women with disabilities, from maternal and child care to education, employment and more. So as the United Nations and its many agencies develop their next set of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), people with disabilities demand to be included, thus moving our common humanity forward.
My mind is dominated by images of gender-based violence against women and girls with disabilities, which has increased substantially due to war, catastrophic disasters, and poverty. The world has to intervene, conflicts need to cease, risk planning has to improve, governments have to put people first, civil society organizations must cooperate, and people with disabilities need to be empowered. We need recognize the psycho-social implications of disability and the travesty of injustices that contribute to it. The United Nations is a magnificent concept, and gathered at this Conference of States Parties, are powerful allies of those with disabilities, so let’s hope that by this time next year, we’ll hear more about success and achievement and less about the avoidable casualties of man’s inhumanity to man.

The Festival of Freedom

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s   attitude in any given set of circumstances.

– from Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl

freedom_festivalIt’s Spring again, and with it we celebrate the renewal of the planet, the return of nature’s greenery, the sunshine on our faces, the rain showers replacing sleet and snow, and the promise of summer.

Human beings seem very moved and connected to the seasons, and more light-hearted, happy and energetic when it is Spring. In this season, we have a celebration with which I am most familiar, that of Passover. According to the Wikipedia, “The Jewish people celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. It commemorates the story of the Exodus as described in the Hebrew Bible especially in the Book of Exodus, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. According to standard biblical chronology, this event would have taken at about 1300 BCE (AM 2450).

Since the story of Moses appears in the Holy Books of all three Abrahamic faiths, I am going to risk being particular and talk about the message of Freedom. What does it mean to celebrate Freedom, what does it mean to be a free people, and how does that relate to the rights of people with disabilities, or any marginalized people? How can we extrapolate from one cultural experience and benefit another?

The Freedom from slavery described in Exodus is literally physical freedom, as slavery affected several generations of Jews in Egypt, (following the time when Jews had been welcomed by the Pharoh because of Joseph’s successfully interpreting Pharoh’s dreams and preparing Egypt to survive a great 7 year drought.) Jews are required to consider that in every generation we must free ourselves from slavery AND remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, and therefore, work to free others who are enslaved.

According to the scriptures, (or the myths whichever one prefers), the Jewish people became too multitudinous and the Egyptians feared or were jealous of their success, so they declared them non Egyptians and enslaved or bonded them to work for the State, and the story goes, used their labour and denied their rights and freedoms. As time went on, their number must have still increased for Pharoh demanded the death of all Jewish male children. One child is saved, Moses, who is rescued by Pharoh’s own daughter, and as the story continues, he grows up to challenge Pharoh, and eventually wins freedom for his people, taking them forward to claim the land that God had promised.

What is inherent in the story are the many ways that “freedom” can be interpreted. All of the people are to be “equally” free, not some demeaned by others, or having fewer freedoms. Today, as Jews study the story and tell it again and again, each year remembering and renewing a commitment to freedom, we are required to think about the concept. Are we free of things that hold us back from achieving what we are capable of achieving? Are we enabling others to be free? Are we free to express our views, to access services and to participate actively in our society? Are we among the voters in a democratic country? In other words do we appreciate and express our freedoms by active engagement? It is really not that long ago that women in Canada did not even have a vote!! Voting rights for women were introduced in several provinces in 1916, then in 1917 in others, but federally not until 1921. One of the icons of March of Dimes is The Honorable Ellen Fairclough, first Canadian federal cabinet minister and a former Chief Marching Mother.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, promulgated in 1982, was a tremendous landmark, guaranteeing basic rights to Canadians, but original drafts did not include protection of rights for several groups, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community among them. March of Dimes was an advocate, and actively pursued the inclusion of people with disabilities. I am reminded of our protestations on the Not Withstanding Clause that allowed Quebec to opt out of certain provisions, as we feared that this could include not providing protection of rights for people with disabilities. We know today that is unlikely to occur; and that Human Rights legislation at the federal and provincial levels, guarantee equal treatment before the law. At the conclusion, many important aspects of freedom were embellished in the Charter and here are significant aspects of what are called Fundamental Freedoms:

Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

  • (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
  • (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  • (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  • (d) freedom of association.

I recommend reading the entire Charter document which describes other freedoms that we cherish.

We should think about other ways of viewing freedom; for example, freedom from other people’s perceptions and attitudes that hinder acceptance, be it socially, psychologically or morally. These are harder to define, but this speaks to the idea that ‘justice needs to be seen to be done,” not just that it’s said to be done. So, appropriate customer service in retail, access to recreational venues, fair pricing for transportation services regardless of disability, support in caregiving, and other softer areas of life, are now addressed in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and this Act has just undergone a major review. The Act declares that Ontario will be barrier free by 2025 and as it’s been in place since 2005, we are at the half way mark. While still a long way to go, in my view, this Act makes concrete the ideas of freedom, including inclusivity, accessibility, equality of opportunity, and basic consideration in seeing people with disabilities as people first, disabled second.

So, as Spring moves into summer, may everyone enjoy the radiance of sun and longer daylight hours, but recall that it’s not sunny for everyone. Many people do not have basic freedoms in today’s world, many women have few or no rights in countries that don’t value equally all of their citizens and remember that here at home, we have the challenge of creating a society that is fully inclusive and ensures that people with disabilities can exercise their freedoms.