What I've Learned as a Disabled Canadian Living in the United States
By late 2013, after almost two years working in Haiti with UNICEF, I was preparing to move to the United States, country #10 in the tour of my international career. Knowing how fiercely patriotic Americans are, and wanting to be respectful of my new host country, part of that preparation was learning the words to the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Although I knew the tune, as many Canadians do, it’s not an easy song considering its 19 semitones and poem lyrics. An American colleague, my dear friend Suzie who sat across from me in our open concept, high-ceilinged office, helped me practice. We would squeak it out for everyone to hear, huffing (jokingly) when told to “pipe down” by others who probably wished I reserved my practicing to the shower.
In the five years that I’ve now worked in the United States, I enjoy singing the anthem and my American peers seem to appreciate my enthusiasm. Now don’t get me wrong, I will always be a die hard Canadian, proudly wearing our red maple leaf anywhere I can and belting out our national anthem, “O Canada,” as if I’m Celine Dion, Canada’s jewel international superstar voice. But having grown up in Canada, I was taught that it’s OK to love both and when the day comes to have dual American citizenship, that’s OK too, because celebrating diversity is the cornerstone of Canadian culture. Actually diversity, inclusion and feminism are key drivers of our foreign policy, international trade, local business development and national politics too.
Diversity is ingrained in us from kindergarten, not just in the fact that our peers are from all over the world. I moved to a Canada from India as a baby, eventually to a Toronto suburb, and like many Canadian immigrants English was not the only language spoken at home, nor was Canadian cuisine what was served for dinner. Diversity is not only the norm in Canada; it’s encouraged so much so that being different can be a status symbol. Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world; you can hear 150+ languages spoken by 200+ ethnic groups.
Joining a new school in the second semester of Grade 9 in Mississauga, Ontario, a boisterous boy in homeroom asked me in front of all the other kids, “Well, what are you?” Perplexed and embarrassed, because I did not understand the question, I meekly responded, “I’m a girl.” The roar of laughter would have completely obliterated my confidence, had he not clarified his question: he wanted to know my ethnicity. And I had an answer that impressed everyone to “oohs” and “ahhs:” “Oh, I’m mixed, a landed-immigrant of East Indian and English descent. I was born in India and still have my Indian passport.” “That’s cool,” the boy acknowledged, as if I had been given safe passage to join the peer-pressure filled world of popularity contests that is high school.
It would not be until Grade 12, at age 17, that I would gain Canadian citizenship and when I did, I was just happy to add another passport to my collection. Honestly, I still did not “feel” Canadian, because I did not realize how different the rest of the world was. It was only when I started my international career, after college, that I would grow to become a fierce patriot like our Southern neighbors.
At that time, never did I imagine that I would live in the U.S.A., or settle here after marrying an American. But I felt prepared to live in the land of red, white and blue more than any other country. Not because Canadians and Americans are the same; on the contrary, there are distinct cultural, political and social differences, but because in school we learned so much about the U.S.A. We were taught American geography and had to memorize the 50 states. We learned American history, such as how the country gained independence from the British and read the chronicles of the slave trade and the Civil War, both of which impacted Canada through the Underground Railroad. We also studied the icons of the civil rights movement, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. American presidents were always in the Canadian newspapers and discussed in social studies classes. And hundreds of thousands of Canadians experienced American consumer culture in the form of great shopping deals available just south of the border. It was a common weekend getaway back in the good old days when our currencies was more on par and all you needed to cross the Canada-U.S. border was a driver’s license.
All of those lessons were a good start, but living in the South, in the thriving city of Atlanta, I have been privileged to learn in depth about our Southern neighbors — from their painful past to the heroic struggles that enable them to stand strong today. I admire how American society has evolved and I appreciate being welcomed here as a foreign-born Canadian who was raised in a cultural mosaic where people believe that Canada becomes stronger by having immigrants bring their cultural diversity for all Canadians to learn from. While the United States identifies as a melting pot where cultures have fused together and a single identity is adopted, I see more similarities than I do differences, especially when it comes to minorities striving for inclusion, equal opportunity and fair representation.
It is here in the U.S.A. that my life as a woman living with an adult-onset disability and my career as an Inclusion and Diversity advocate has blossomed. I give thanks to the values of diversity, feminism and equality my Canadian education has instilled in me. I also give thanks for the kindness I experience every day in the city of Atlanta where as I maneuver around with the assistance of a walker, the overwhelming majority of folks, mostly strangers, offer me assistance with a heavy door or simply a kind word. It’s not just Southern hospitality; it’s also Americans’ mindset to fight for the underdog. Civil society is robust and I’ve found people here are generous, not just around the holidays.
I’d like to think that one day I will return to live in Canada to contribute to the disability rights movement there, especially with all I have learned about the Americans with Disabilities Act. That federal legislation, passed in 1990 by President H. W. Bush, while not universally complied with, lays the legal path for Americans to claim their rights to equal access, representation and participation. I’m privileged to learn from some of the most renowned American disability rights activists like Mark Johnson who co-founded ADAPT, a militant, non-violent, grassroots disability rights organization; and Judith Heumann, who served in the State Department under the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations.
While Canada has robust provincial disability legislation, especially in British Columbia, and Canadians with disabilities are protected from discrimination under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, my country has yet to push through its own federal legislation. However, I’m proud to say it’s on its way! On June 20, 2018, Bill-C-821 The Accessible Canada Act: an Act to Ensure a Barrier Free Canada was introduced to Parliament by the Honorable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons With Disabilities. The act, the first-ever bill to enshrine accessibility requirements into law, would strengthen the existing rights and protections for people with disabilities through the development, implementation and enforcement of accessibility standards, as well as the monitoring of outcomes in priority areas.
This is great news for Canada and visitors with disabilities, but no matter on which side of the border I stand, you’ll hear me proudly advocating for the rights of people with disabilities and belting out both anthems!