I’m Not Going To Spend My Life Being A Colour

When Michael Jackson’s Black or White came out when I was in elementary school, I found my theme song. I loved the rhythm, the beat and lyrics of the song. And to be honest I loved Michael Jackson so any song of his I heard, I loved. It wasn’t until I got older that I recognized the significance of the song in my life.

Growing up bi-racial in Oakville, Ontario and in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates I thought my multi-racial background was one of my most defining characteristics. I was used to the curious looks our family would get when we travelled around the world; the statement: that’s not your dad became commonplace; and the question: where are you from, or what is your background, or worse – what are you – became almost expected.

In 2010 I participated in the DiverseCity Fellowship and thus began a much deeper understanding of the theory and principles of diversity and inclusion. I expanded my knowledge, skills, and vocabulary related to diversity and inclusion. Inclusion became a daily consideration, rote, something I examined in all areas of my life, in all situations both personal and professional. I enjoyed that I could contribute to making my workplace, social situations and relationships more inclusive, more thoughtful and I felt my actions and considerations made an impact.
That said, I always felt sheepish tackling aspects of diversity for which I did not identify with, I was cautious not to act as a spokesperson for people and communities to which I didn’t represent nor belong to. I felt as an (in no particular order) agnostic heterosexual cisgenger multi-racial woman of colour that I need not speak for those communities I was not a member of, even if I considered myself an ally.

I had no idea that a congenital hip issue would expand my understanding of diversity and inclusion, expose me to new considerations and perspectives and be a catalyst for me to become a quiet advocate for individuals with physical disabilities.

In December 2014 I had a six hour corrective surgery on my right hip to address developmental hip dysplasia that I had my whole life, though for the preceding 2 years had caused me to walk with a severe limp, live with pain that kept me awake at night, and significantly limited me from full and active participation in my community. I was incredibly privileged to a) have the ability to access healthcare, b) advocate for myself in order to receive all the interventions possible to address my hip dysplasia; c) when those interventions did not work I was able to access a medical specialist who performed a corrective surgery – though invasive – would address the aforementioned symptoms and improve my quality of life; and d) to have the support of my employer, family, friends and extended support network to get the rehabilitative care I needed in and to be cared for in a modified living environment suited to my abilities as I progressed in my rehab.

I acknowledged my privilege and understood how to navigate a complex healthcare system to get a highly specialized surgery performed only by one physician in the Greater Toronto Area and one of 3 in Ontario capable of providing this procedure. I had no idea that navigating the built environment would provide far more challenges. As I transitioned back into living in my home in the west part of downtown Toronto I was now accompanied with a 2-wheeled walker, and the endurance of someone challenged with chronic lung disease. I moved slowly, with care and caution.

I was fortunate to have been approved for Wheel Trans service and used this as my main modality for transportation – mostly to and from appointments to physiotherapy and other medical appointments. However once the kindly Wheel Trans driver had left me at my destination, I was on my own (I must say that many went above and beyond their duty to help me into buildings and ensure I was safe well beyond the curb) instantly I became struck with how inhospitable and challenging the built infrastructure can be for those who physical limitations. I was shocked to find signs indicating a location to be accessible, only to find the bathroom down a narrow flight of stairs; to arrive at a subway station to learn that the elevator was not working and escalators only provided in one direction; and I became used to people pushing past me as I lumbered on at a snail’s pace – progress for me, but an annoyance for those trying to get to their busy lives. Nothing was more disheartening than when I graduated to crutches and then to a cane from my 2-wheeled walker than to see people feign sleep on the subway to avoid giving up their seat – more accurately their place in the blue accessible seats on the subway car. I felt at times like exposing my nearly 30 centimeter scar along the front of my right thigh as proof that the crutches and cane were not merely a prop.

I am beyond fortunate that my disability was truly temporary. That said the experiences I had and lessons I learned through that time were far from temporary. I find myself in small ways trying to make life for those around me who have disabilities –whether temporary or permanent, less challenging – small acts like urging others out of the way, holding doors open, offering my seat and most importantly being thoughtful and aware. In broader ways in my role as a fundraiser I try to think of ways to ensure our recruitment practices for leadership volunteers is indeed inclusive, and in thinking of event participants how will they navigate the event if they have any physical challenges. As a manager I try to model inclusive behaviour and use inclusive language; encourage my staff to think about their practices and envision their events, strategies and activities from the point of view of someone whose lived experience differs from their own; and to think about what policies and practices are unintentionally exclusive.

While my experience pales in comparison to many incredibly tenacious people I have had the opportunity to meet along the way, it was necessary to broadening of my understanding of inclusion and what that looks like in practice. It need not be something as momentous and as life-altering surgery that allows us to truly empathize with others. Simply having an aha moment where someone said something, or pointed out something you had not considered can be enough for us to think systematically about the barriers we put in place for others. As Michael Jackson said in Black or White: I’m not going to spend my life being a colour. As a human, a person, an individual, a community member, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a manager – I can address inequality when I see it both directly by addressing the barrier that exists and indirectly by removing those inequalities.