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You-th Oughta Know: The Importance of Youth Involvement in Disability Movements and Spaces

As my advocacy work continues to gain momentum, I’ve begun to find myself one of the few, if not the only, youth in the room – which is a big change from my work at NEADS, a by-and-for post-secondary disabled students group. And while I could celebrate punching above my weight and breaking down barriers, I’m not satisfied. I don’t think I will be satisfied until I am joined by my disabled peers at every committee, staff meeting, consultation, or working group.

Youth have always been foundational to social movements, the driving force behind the wider societal changes happening as I write this and you read this. And yet, we are discredited due to our age, discouraged from what we feel is a lack of experience, and discounted in our advocacy work. After writing that, I’m realizing it’s not the most encouraging start to what is supposed to be a call to action. What I mean by the opening is that things are hard, the odds are stacked against us, but we will continue to fight, lead, and succeed together as we work for a better future.

I want to get into my personal experience as a youth disability advocate, why I believe youth are essential to any social movement, the power youth hold, and how youth can get involved in the disability rights movement. It’s shaping up to be a long one, so bear with me. And now more than ever, I encourage your feedback, your interaction, your connection – as youth, our numbers and our shared experience are our greatest assets.

Quite honestly, life is getting weird. Weird in a very fun, very cool way, but definitely weird. As I begin to take on the role of International Chair for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), I’m getting invited to some higher-level, kinda terrifying consultations and working groups – in one of these, I’ll be working at the same level as one of my university professors. That does not feel like a normal thing to do at 20. Or at least, society and social norms tell me that’s not normal. And while I will undeniably feel out of place, inexperienced, and imposterish, I will still go. I will still speak my mind.

At IDW ’22, I spoke on reverse imposter syndrome: knowing I am definitely not supposed to be there based on others’ expectations, but being there and being loud anyway. Because what are they going to do about it – publicly discredit me? Who invited me to this gig, anyway? Maybe it’s not the most fun feeling – feeling out of your depth, unqualified, and out of place – but I believe that by us going to these opportunities, being loud, and being proud of our age and who we are, we will create space for more meaningful and authentic youth engagement and participation in decision-making processes. And maybe I can’t bring decades of experience and hundreds of professional connections to my work, but I can bring my youth, and the many undeniable assets that come with it.

Whenever I feel discouraged due to my age, I remind myself that youth have been foundational to social movements for decades. Youth were behind the 504 sit-in, the climate justice movement, the Arab Spring, Euromaidan, and countless other incredibly important historical movements. We are the driving force and the front line of social movements around the world – from protesting to grassroots organizing. And this trend is only accelerating – youth today are getting involved in social movements and civic action earlier than ever. What was once reserved for college students is now being carried out by elementary schoolers. Literal children are organizing walkouts to protest violations of their rights and to demand change, and while it is beyond encouraging, it’s disappointing they feel compelled to start so young.

Today’s youth are better educated on their rights, more empowered by changing social norms to stand up for themselves, and more connected than ever through social media – all of which build upon past generations of youths’ work. And youth aren’t just behind protests – we’re the canvassers, volunteers, and staffers that keep community organizations and political campaigns afloat. We are the ones working 12-hour days, double shifts, two to three jobs, and volunteering on top of it. And while we are the ones essential to organizations and campaigns’ success, we go uncredited, underpaid (if paid at all), and uninvited to meaningful decision-making forums.

I believe we as youth have a lot of reasons to participate in social movements. Due to our age and position within society, we both have the most to lose and the most to gain. We are the ones that live with the consequences of the decisions being made today, and the decisions that are often made without our full and equal participation. There’s a growing criticism of youth involvement in protest and social movements – but this criticism largely ignores the fact that, when excluded from traditional or conventional decision-making processes, protests or social movements are our only option to speak our minds, voice our opinions, and make the change we want to see in the world. When we are included in key discussions, it is often through youth-specific forums hosted by adults. And in my personal experience, while the connections I’ve made with my peers at these forums have been invaluable, our (unpaid and uncredited) input is rarely meaningfully heard and impact fully incorporated into end results. Those of us who are included in these forums also often come from highly privileged positions – to be involved in these forums, you often need connections, resources, and support. Even if these forums adequately incorporated their participants’ perspectives, the whole picture would continue to be missing.

Maybe I’m biased, but I believe youth have this undeniable power, and I have seen it in action nearly every day of my life. We know today’s context best – while we might not have lived through historical precedents and past similarities, we are fully immersed in today’s context as it is, and we are not weighed down by what was and what could have been. We know the world around us, and we pick up on the changes. Often, we are at the forefront of innovation.

Take social media – a now-essential tool for advertising, entertainment, education, entrepreneurship, and organization. Youth are dominating the field in all its forms. One thing I always bring up around older generations is how my generation has deeply benefitted from growing up in the online age – with constant innovations, breakthrough ideas, and changing platforms, we know how to keep up with the times and adapt to new contexts as they develop. (Of course, social media is not all good, but that blog is for another day).

Our youth also gives us something to fight for – as I’ve said, we have the most to gain and most to lose, and we will live with the consequences. Like all generations, we want to enjoy full, meaningful, fulfilling lives – and youth is the best time to secure that for ourselves. Our youth also makes us visionaries. Yes, we can be naive (and it would be naive of me to deny this), and definitely not the most reasonable or pragmatic at times, but we push the agenda forward, incorporate new, innovative ideas, and never take no as an answer. Our youth sustains us in our darkest hours, because we know that within our lifetimes there is so much capacity and potential to change. And you can go ahead and discredit our optimism and idealism, but we know more than anyone else that we are the ones that will live with the consequences of our failures and our successes.

Youth today are also exceptionally experienced and qualified, even when we don’t believe it ourselves. In this economy, so many of us have to work multiple jobs and pursue diverse additional experiences to stay competitive and afloat. Take a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old: the former started work at 14 and worked multiple jobs at once, while the latter started their career at age 24 after finishing a degree. Despite the 10-year age difference, both have six years of work experience – showing how age is not an absolute qualification. (Also I can’t believe I incorporated math into this, so sorry everyone.)

I believe that one of the greatest things holding my generation back (besides ageism, economic instability, climate change, and shifting labor market demographics, I’ll just stop now) is our self-doubt. We are so quick to perceive ourselves as unqualified, so quick to compare ourselves to our much older competition or colleagues, who grew up in phenomenally different circumstances. But we are qualified.

I have firsthand witnessed the incredible, impressive, and somewhat excessive qualifications of my generation. We work day and night, just so we can work harder the next day. We have incredible experience that wasn’t even available to our older colleagues when they were our age. And in a world where relevant skills, experience, and qualifications change so fast, maybe we should re-evaluate this self-doubt. Maybe, our youth makes us incredibly qualified in today’s context. As long as we keep buying into the idea that we are not ready, not qualified, not experienced – we will continue to be excluded from mainstream discussions, continue to be excluded from decision-making processes, and continue to be nearly invisible to those in charge. And yes, this is a gross oversimplification, but isn’t it so wonderful to believe that just by believing in ourselves we can change all of this?

And now, the call to action. Point blank: we need disabled youth at the frontlines of our disability rights movement, and more youth in all elements of decision-making processes. We are qualified, innovative, and experienced. We know what we need, we know what needs to be changed, and we know what kind of world we want to live in. Undo reverse imposter syndrome – sign up for forums, discussions, and conferences. Either get your foot in the door, or break the door down. Claim a seat at the table, or pull one up yourself. The worst thing those in power can do is say no, and if they do, we find alternative routes to make change.

In my work with NEADS, I have seen my disabled peers excel. My peers are qualified, bold, powerful, intelligent, moving, and demanding the change they deserve to see in this world. Let’s use our youth-dominated spaces to foster connections and support that will sustain us as we begin to move into older generation-dominated spaces. Let’s use our youth to introduce innovative and imaginative ideas. In my work with CCD, I fully and transparently plan to usher in a new era, where youth participation and leadership is central to the organization. CCD actively wants youth involved, wants youth to lead, and wants to empower us to do so. Without the encouragement of Heather Walkus, CCD’s Acting Chair, I would have never considered applying for International Chair, and I would love to return this favor by empowering my peers to join CCD alongside me.

Don’t let me be the only disabled youth representation. I am actively asking my peers to prevent me from getting cool opportunities and life-changing experiences. Stop me! Please! Because if I’m the only representation, I am not being good representation. To my disabled peers, please get involved however, wherever you can, in whatever capacity works best for you. Whether that’s through the #MyNEADS CommunityCCD (especially the International and Youth Committees!), or municipal, provincial, federal, and international politics and decision-making processes. We are stronger together – and once a few of us get in, let’s make sure everyone gets in.

Getty image by FatCamera

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