"You know it's a L'Arche conference when there's this amount of fun!" said Kirk of L'Arche Fredericton. Maybe he was referring to the keynote speakers jumping out of a seven-foot cake? Perhaps he was thinking about the crowded dancefloor at the concluding East Coast ceilidh? Or maybe he was talking about the countless conversations that allowed new relationships to begin and existing relationships to deepen?
In any case, the conference hosted by L'Arche Atlantic from August 5th to the 9th at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish did not feel like a typical conference. Even a caterer at the conference said, "I've been here 36 years. Of all the conferences I've ever done, this was the most inspiring, most amazing one that I've worked. I am retiring this year and this conference will stay in my heart forever."
Numerous attendees experienced something similar. In fact, the word "attendees" fails to capture the active role each participant played in the 4-day gathering of L'Arche members, scholars, civil servants, artists, self-advocates, and community leaders from across the country.
True to its theme and title, Celebrate the Gift: Conversations on Community, Inclusion, and Disability, the conference was a collection of conversations oriented by L'Arche Canada's 50 years of commitment to witnessing and sharing the gifts of all people, especially people with intellectual disabilities. The welcoming words of John Rietschlin, L'Arche Canada's Board President, echoed throughout the 4 days: "We are going to learn from each other!"
Jenn Power, the conference organizer and leader of L'Arche Atlantic, explained that the learning began even before the event because efforts toward inclusion inevitably involve mistakes. With courage and humility, she owned a mistake and invited us all into a week of sometimes difficult, sometimes joyful conversations on topics ranging from inclusive storytelling and digital accessibility to welcoming Syrian refugees and securing human rights.
One prominent feature of the conference was the use of many modes of communication. Along with speeches from local dignitaries, L'Arche Antigonish performed a choreographed dance that offered one interpretation of inclusion. When an enthusiastic member of the audience got up to join the dancers, the group created space for him to perform alongside them. In keeping with the theme, his contributions were an asset, not a burden.
Disability scholar and keynote speaker Dr. Pamela Cushing commented on how the conference created an opportunity to "perform inclusion as you talk about it." Some of the conversations required no words. Instead, the beat of a drum in the drumming circle or the placement of a flower in the mandala allowed people to simultaneously learn and teach about inclusion. These spaces were charged by the same energy that permeated the keynote speeches, split sessions, public talks, and panel discussions.
Dr. Cushing remarked, "It is absolutely 100 percent worth the effort and creativity upfront to figure out how to put everyone in the room together." The organizers accomplished this by planning ASL interpretation, simultaneous graphic interpretation, and plain language handouts. Furthermore, the spontaneous expressions of inclusion, the verbal affirmations, the hugs and handshakes mid-way through presentations (what another keynote speaker Dr. Jutta Treviranus would call "human grace notes"), provided additional examples of what an inclusive environment could look like. Xaverine of L'Arche Calgary witnessed what she called "an empowerment moment" as a representative from People First exclaimed, "It's so nice to be on the panel... to talk and express my feelings with you guys."
- Dr Cushing
As participant Cara Jones said, "Inclusion means something different for everyone." Dr. Treviranus, an expert in inclusive design, challenged us to consider how we can "create environments and attitudes where we can be inclusive without losing differences." Rather than relying on statistical significance and averages which valorize conformity at the expense of diversity, Dr. Treviranus demonstrated how attentiveness to the outer edges of the "human starburst" benefits everyone. By receiving the "gift of difference," we develop better tools and technology.
- Dr Treviranus
As the director of L'Arche's As I Am docu-series, Michael McDonald gained many insights into the international vision of L'Arche which he described as "one of unity without conformity." Michael gave the audience a behind the scenes look at As I Am. The films and stories conjured up both laughter and tears as the audience reflected on what the presence and absence of inclusion looks like around the world. On the final day, Michael's concluding keynote highlighted how L'Arche communities are examples of positive deviance. "L'Arche is dedicated to proving medical experts wrong–when it comes to the life expectancy of people with disabilities; to driving hospitals crazy–when it comes to visiting hours; to defying statisticians–when they claim loneliness is our destiny, and to challenging the cult of speed... by protecting the age-old value of 'time-wasted-at table'."
As Jenn foretold, conversations about inclusion are joyful and difficult. There was a restorative element to the conference as many participants grappled with injustice. When Dr. Cushing explained how people with an intellectual disability were historically labeled "idiots" and "ineducable", a woman turned to her neighbor and said, "They called me that." It was clear that the pain of the past could still be felt. Steve Estey, former Human Rights Officer at Disabled Peoples' International, explained that the discrimination of the past can still be seen. Despite the wealth and progressiveness of Canada, it has yet to close down all of its institutions.
- Steve Estey
Quoting Anne Frank, presenter Lisa Snider reminded us that we can "start right now to gradually change the world." This conference, which brought together people from inside and outside of L'Arche, from the local community and from the furthest provinces, is an extension of L'Arche's movement for a more human world. In my opinion, that is cause enough for celebration. Let's keep celebrating the gift of difference and taking up the challenge of inclusion.