Spencer van Vloten: With intellectual disabilities, we all have a part to play in inclusion

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      By Spencer van Vloten

      Next time you are out and about in the community, take a minute and scan your surroundings.

      You may be waiting at a bus stop, chatting outside with the neighbours, or relaxing between classes at a favourite campus coffee shop.

      Now take note of who you see, then take note of who you do not see. Chances are you will not see one of the thousands of British Columbians with an intellectual disability.

      British Columbians with developmental delays or conditions such as Down syndrome were once considered ‘incurables’, confined to institutions like the infamous Woodlands so they would be out of public view, existing separately from society.

      Although, thankfully, this degree of exclusion no longer persists, the community inclusion of persons with intellectual disabilities still is not where it should be.

      And at the root of this are our attitudes.

      One of our more problematic tendencies as humans can be that we too often focus on what sets us apart rather than what we have in common. For decades, people with intellectual disabilities have been cast as the other, and societal practices have reinforced that attitude.

      In schools, students with complex needs have been segregated in cohorts where they have little to no contact with most of their same-age peers. In employment, sheltered workshops have seen disabled persons isolated from the rest of the workforce and paid less than their nondisabled counterparts.   

      Practices like this helped entrench society’s attitudes that people with disabilities exist separately from those without them: they are not people we make friends with; they are not people we work with; and they are not like us. They are just different.

      But whatever differences may exist, these are vastly outnumbered by what we share.

      People with intellectual disabilities have goals to live independently, to pursue friendships and love, and to find work they enjoy—much to the benefit of employers and colleagues, I might add, who are proven to make gains in morale and productivity when disabled employees are part of integrated work environments.

      People with intellectual disabilities are also insightful, funny, and kind, sharing the same interests in things like hockey, Netflix, music, and art that nondisabled persons do.

      And they are incredibly capable, especially when their communities are most in need.

      Take, for instance, the Self-Advocate Leadership Network. Formed by two friends with intellectual disabilities, they organized a provincewide advocacy network and delivered in a major way during the pandemic, connecting community members to crucial information and social support.

      It was also, in part, due to their advocacy that B.C.’s essential-visitor policy changed, allowing families to be with loved ones in care homes and hospitals.

      Why am I bringing this up now? Because October is Community Inclusion Month.

      Officially declared as such by the province, it is a time to celebrate the participation of persons with intellectual disabilities in our communities and to reflect on our own views of inclusion. It is also a time to analyze what improvements need to be made.

      This includes all levels of government providing greater funding and policy support for inclusive, accessible, and affordable housing developments; it includes creating more opportunities for persons with disabilities to pursue the occupation of their choosing, along with the training required to make that possible.

      And, most importantly, it includes a change in attitude that recognizes that persons with intellectual disabilities are not some "other" to be cast aside but human beings with goals, feelings, and family just like you and me. Without this attitudinal shift, none of the other changes will be possible, nor will we be a truly inclusive society.

      So the next time you look around and do not see anyone with an intellectual disability, ask yourself why that is and whether there is anything you can do to promote inclusion, be it through hiring someone with a disability, volunteering with a disability organization, or simply smiling and saying hello if someone with an intellectual disability does cross your path.

      Only when these become the status quo, our way of doing things without having to think about them, will the inclusion of British Columbians with intellectual disabilities be where it needs to be.

      Let’s embrace our similarities, celebrate our differences, and aim for a B.C. where everyone can fully participate during Community Inclusion Month and beyond.