Taking our place in the inclusion movement

By John Guido with Lori Vaanholt

“Where has L’Arche been?” It’s a question that Lori Vaanholt, L’Arche Canada’s new Director of Strategic Development and Innovation (formerly the Growth Coordinator) has been hearing a lot from accessibility and inclusion (disability) advocates in recent weeks as she participated in:

  • the first National Disability Summit convened by Hon. Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Accessibility in Ottawa, May 9-10
  • the 12th session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), at the United Nations, June 11 to 13.

National Disability Summit (Photo: Accessibility Canada)

It’s not an easy question to hear or to answer, especially when asked with a critical edge. Yet it’s a fair question. Although L’Arche has participated in Senate hearings, signed onto the Vulnerable Persons Standard, and participated in many provincial meetings, we were rarely present at national inclusion meetings over recent decades. When you aren’t present, people form their own opinions about what your absence means.

As hard as it’s been to hear the tough questions, it’s also been deeply affirming for Lori and others to hear a different response: “We’re glad you’re here.” Many of these leaders have been inspired by the message of Jean Vanier rooted in sharing life with persons with intellectual disabilities and welcoming their gifts and abilities. Some have witnessed how this vision is lived – authentically if imperfectly – in L’Arche communities in Canada and around the world.

They are calling L’Arche to come to the table, to help ensure that the voices and experiences of persons with a wide range of intellectual disabilities can be heard – voices and experiences of people often left behind even by the inclusion movement. And we are being called to share what we’re learning about sharing life in inclusive communities where their gifts are named, developed, and contributed for their wellbeing and the common good.

Engaging with Partners for Inclusion

These questions and calls could only be named because L’Arche Canada has been showing up in recent years. Directed by our recent Mandates, L’Arche Canada leaders and community delegates have taken strides to engage with government and civil society leaders in the inclusion movement:

  • We have had delegates in Ottawa each December for the past three years to attend the People First and Canadian Association of Community Living (CACL) annual Policy Forums and the Minister’s reception for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
  • Several members of L’Arche across Canada participated in the process that led to the drafting of Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act. L’Arche Canada presented a paper to the process and met with Minister Qualtrough to share our concerns.
  • L’Arche Canada signed collective letters and added our own to the Minister and all Members of Parliament to support the Accessible Canada Act that recently became law.
  • L’Arche Canada was recognized by the federal government as a “national organization” and was approved for an SDPP-D grant “to improve the participation and integration of people with disabilities in all aspects of Canadian society with respect to social inclusion.”
  • We are participating in meetings regarding the implementation of the Accessible Canada Act and the CRPD in Canada and have signed letters of support for two projects being facilitated by partners funded by other Social Development partnership grants.

It is an important time for Canada and the world as governments and the accessibility and inclusion movement meet “to share challenges, explore opportunities, and work together to build momentum for an accessible and inclusive Canada” in light of the CRPD and the new Accessible Canada Act.

L’Arche Canada is developing our capacity to take our place. While L’Arche is not primarily an advocacy or policy development organization, we are finding our way to contribute to and learn with the inclusion movement that we have belonged to for over 50 years.

John Rietschlin, Jenn Power, Ian Pellerin, Tricia Scott, Lori Vaanholt, and Louis Pilotte at the People First and CACL Policy Forum.

What we’re learning with our partners

At both the National Disability Summit and Conference of State Parties, Lori was struck by a few key themes that we will need to address more fully within L’Arche if we are to contribute:

  • Intersectionality – discrimination against people with disabilities overlaps with discrimination because of gender, class, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, and beliefs.
  • People with disabilities must be the drivers of their own lives.
  • People with disabilities have social capital – networks of relationships and contributions to their communities – that needs to be celebrated and built on.
  • Storytelling is key – in both analyzing measures of the impact of programs and engaging the wider society in the fundamental importance of diversity and inclusion.

We are moving beyond the mantra of ‘nothing about us without us’ to ‘nothing without us, because everything is about us.’

Minister Qualtrough is calling for a new era of cooperation within the inclusion movement and across all sectors of Canadian society. In her address to the UN, she stated, “Canada is making fundamental shifts in two key ways.

  • First, we are framing our public policy discourse in human rights. By this I mean, the rights of full citizenship and the civic, political, and economic participation of our citizens with disabilities. We are moving beyond the practice of individual accommodation to address discrimination and are moving towards inclusion.
  • Second, we are moving beyond the mantra of ‘nothing about us without us’ to ‘nothing without us, because everything is about us.’ There is not one aspect of legal, political, social, or economic decision-making that does not impact our citizens with disabilities. Our new rallying cry recognizes this.”

Engaging in a movement

One of the key elements of a successful movement is small groups of highly engaged people. L’Arche knows about building relationships based on mutual respect, knowledge sharing, and collaboration – although we also recognize where these elements need to be strengthened within L’Arche in Canada.

The same is true when we ‘go out’ to engage with partners for belonging and inclusion in Canadian society. Here are some of the awesome people Lori met at the UN conference:

(Above) Lori Vaanholt, L’Arche Canada with Diane Kreuger, Independent Living Canada, Frank Folino, Canadian Association of the Deaf, Dr. Susan Hardie, Eviance, and Kory Earle, People First of Canada. It was Susan who invited Lori to attend the UN session.

Robert Martin (right), from New Zealand, sits on the United Nations Committee to monitor the CRPD, the first person with an intellectual disability to sit on a UN Committee and to chair a session at the UN. “The work is not done yet, far from it. I'm committed to making sure people with learning disabilities have the same rights as all other people.”

Hannah MacLellan (left), a youth representative from Canada, delivered a message on the importance of language surrounding disabilities. "I have discovered the importance of descriptive language. Whether it's writing policies, speaking to others, maybe even thinking about yourself. Words are important and shape the way we see the world.”

Where are we going from here?

L’Arche in Canada is called to “Claim our place in society and help build a more human Canadian society where everyone belongs” through growth and innovation, marketing and communications, and by building “dynamic partnerships with all levels of government and with other organizations to promote the contributions of people with intellectual disabilities…”

We are building a strategic plan and developing an impact measurement framework, yet the core of our mandate is a vision and 50 years experience of a world where everyone is valued and belongs. This is the path that Jean Vanier set for us and that we are invited to follow as we carry L’Arche into the future.

With persons with intellectual disabilities as co-leaders and co-learners, we are convinced that L’Arche has something important to contribute and much to learn as we find our way in the movement for belonging and inclusion.

Lori Vaanholt, L’Arche Canada’s Director of Strategic Development and Innovation, has been a member of L’Arche for 30 years living in several communities. She is the former Community Leader of L’Arche Hamilton, Assistants Coordinator at Daybreak, and Growth Coordinator for L’Arche Canada.


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L’Arche Canada’s monthly e-mail review of news, stories, and commentary about what is happening in L’Arche, with our partners, and within Canadian society.