Our decisions are so often disproportionately influenced by our own individual experiences.
An acquaintance or friend, a scientist or statistician may tell us that something is happening, but we don’t believe it until we witness it ourselves.
An advocate for those with spinal cord injuries may tell us that accessible bathrooms are needed at public beaches. But if we don’t remember seeing people in wheelchairs using the beach, we may not agree. (It’s important to note that not everyone with a spinal cord injury uses a wheelchair).
But that’s where Spinal Cord Injury BC’s Peer Support Program, a partner of United Way British Columbia, can make a difference, says Jocelyn, manager of SCI BC’s Nanaimo resource centre.
The Peer Support Program serves many important purposes, including holding outdoor activities and events that provide opportunities for those with spinal cord injuries to try adaptive sports like biking and kayaking, and connecting newly-injured folks to peers with valuable experience, insight and camaraderie to share.
But one of the other benefits of the program is that, with its outdoor events, it shows everyone else that those with spinal cord injuries and others with similar challenges exist in our communities.
“The more that they [donors, volunteers, voters] see this stuff happening – our peer support events and the adaptive equipment we use, the amazing achievements that folks in our community our achieving – I think the more they understand that this is not somewhere else. These are folks that are part of our community already,” says Jocelyn.
Take, for instance, beach wheelchairs, she says. People question if they are necessary, or if there really are disabled people in their community that really need it. After all, they haven’t seen someone in a wheelchair at the beach.
Joceyln counters, “Why would they come out if they can’t access the beach?
“So this is, like, the ‘if you build it,’ part of the equation.”
But often, it takes repeated demonstrations of need to convince people of a need.
And the Peer Support Program does that with their events.
“Our Diver Lake barbecue was every year until the pandemic hit,” says Jocelyn. “And we rented an accessible Porta Potti there so many times for that event that the city decided to keep it permanent.”
That’s a great result, she says. But demonstrating the need requires a lot of work, a lot of volunteers, and the support of organizations like United Way British Columbia, to happen.
But, for that work and support, you get a lot in return – a happier, healthier and more engaged spinal-cord-injury community, life-changing friendships, and a wider community that’s more aware of their neighbour’s needs and more supportive of accessibility infrastructure.
While Jocelyn says she hopes that one day there will be enough awareness in our communities that building and acting with accessibility in mind will be a matter of course, until then she’s happy to have the support of organizations like United Way British Columbia.
“We aren’t yet at a place where people with disabilities have … equitable access to everything. And as long as that’s the case, we’re always going to have to create a little extra energy, and do a little more to encourage inclusion, to set the stage for that to happen.”
“[United Way] is a gathering of energy and support so that we can do the work that we do. Because … these are folks [with disabilities], they are tax payers, they’re people on pensions, they’re university students, they are all every bit as equal to everybody else, but we haven’t in a lot of ways, been able to have our communities think through all of those access components.
“And with the kind of energy that the United Way is able to gather from donors and organizations that contribute, it enables us to do that work so that people can be included, so they see themselves as an integral part of the community.”