As far as rights for people with disabilities have come, there’s still a long way to go. Full equality and inclusion are becoming closer to reality in 2014; wheelchair-accessibility has become a given, and businesses are starting to embrace this incredibly capable, but formerly un-tapped, workforce.

This wasn’t the case in 1976 when the United Nations (UN) General Assembly recognized the need to assist people with disabilities to enjoy equality and fully participate in society. They proclaimed 1981 The International Year of Disabled Persons, setting a mandate to develop action plans that enable full equality and participation. To allow time for countries to act on this 1981 World Program of Action, the UN Decade of Disabled Persons was proclaimed for 1983-1992. And on December 3, 1992 the UN promoted the first International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The aim behind the UN’s actions is to promote an understanding of disability issues while mobilizing support for the dignity, rights, and wellbeing of persons with disabilities. Integration issues are also gaining traction as society recognizes the overall benefits of full community inclusion in all realms of political, social, economic, and cultural life.

A different focus on disability rights is set each year. The theme for 2014 is Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology.

At VIU, the Disability Services Office mission is: “To work collaboratively and innovatively with the campus community to create an accessible, equitable, and supportive learning and living environment that enhances each student’s academic and personal development while attending VIU.” The office provides information, services, equipment, and other types of support to students with documented disabilities—temporary and permanent—so that they have an equal opportunity to be successful in their studies.

Some of their services include providing scribes for students with visual or hearing impairments, as well as interpreters, electronic devices, software, and accommodations like quiet rooms for completing exams.

On VIU Disability Services Office

On December 3, the VIU Disability Services Office hosts 14 community organizations in the Arbutus Room on the Nanaimo campus to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme this year is Break Barriers, Open Doors: For an Inclusive Society for All.

This event provides students, faculty, staff, and the public with an opportunity to connect with community resources in Nanaimo. Information will be available from groups including the Nanaimo Brain Injury Society, BC Schizophrenia Society, and Brooks Landing Mental Health and Addiction Services.

“Everyone is invited to come see the community resources and technological advances available to assist persons with disabilities,” says Debra Hagen, Coordinator of Disability Services for VIU. “We feel it’s important to be part of this international day of observance.”

The event is also a good opportunity for students with disabilities to learn about resources that are available to them, for students with friends who have disabilities to learn more about how they can (and can’t) help, and for students who may be interested in a career working with the disability community to speak with frontline workers about their experiences.

For a full list of participants, check out VIU’s disability services online.

You can attend the event and view the displays between 11 am and 2 pm on December 3 in bldg. 300, rm. 401. For more information about VIU’s Disability Services Office, call 250-740-6446 or email disabilityservices@viu.ca.

“We’re trying to level the playing field for all students. It’s all about improving access to education,” says Debra Hagen, Coordinator of Disability Services for VIU. 637 students are currently registered with the department.

Recent advancements in technology have opened doors for the disabled community that would have been hard to even imagine a few years ago. Livescribe is a smart pen that assists students with hearing impairments. “It looks like a regular pen but has a built-in recorder,” Hagen says. “The student takes notes in class on special paper, and later uses the pen [with their mobile device] to tap on key words to play back that part of the lecture.” Another device, UbiDuo, uses wireless units with keyboards and screens to help students with hearing impairments communicate with others when an interpreter isn’t available. VIU’s Nanaimo campus has three UbiDuo devices available.

The Disability Services Office also sees students with chronic health issues, physical disabilities, and temporary impairments due to an accident, illness, or injury.

Visible disabilities are often better understood and easily recognized because they’re visible. The needs of a student in a wheelchair, on crutches, walking with a cane, or accompanied by a service animal or an interpreter are often more easily understood by others intuitively.

Goabaone Montsho is just one student who receives assistance from VIU’s Disability Services Office

Three years ago, Montsho left Botswana to study Anthropology at VIU. Rendered blind by a medical condition at the age of 15, he faced many challenges, but he says, “Being legally blind isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person.”

He’s very grateful for the support he receives from VIU’s Disability Services. The department’s staff can scan and convert textbooks and other materials into PDFs that are accessible via special software. Jaws, a computerized screen reader, transmits emails and allows him to study and write papers. In class an assistant takes notes, and to complete exams he dictates his answers to a scribe.

The Nanaimo campus did present a unique obstacle. “At first, the stairs were challenging, but I’m used to them now,” he says. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind provides Orientation Mobility Training that helped Montsho become comfortable moving between classes with a walking stick.

At a very young age, Montsho learned that bravery, courage, and a willingness to take on new challenges would help him succeed in life. “Now I hope to inspire others. Anyone can overcome life’s obstacles,” he says.

Montsho likes to give back to his community by volunteering with VIU’s student ambassador program as a Peer Success Coach. “I enjoy helping students with academic challenges find ways to improve their grades,” he says. “I love giving to others. It gives me great satisfaction.”

In the 30 years since the UN turned its attention to persons with disabilities, the face of disability—of the conditions that are recognized as significantly restricting daily living—has changed. Today, so-called “invisible disabilities” are more widely diagnosed, and the life-changing benefits of providing appropriate supports are being recognized. With the right accommodations and modifications, diagnoses such as Learning Disabled, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder no longer mean exclusion from university life.

15 percent

There are alternative terms to “disabled,” like “differently abled,” and from Glee’s Sue Sylvester, “handycapable.” It’s all very politically correct. But political correctness grows from a grain of truth: words have power, and words weave our reality. “I’m having a bad day,” cements as fact that you are and will continue to have a bad day. “It has been a bad day,” on the other hand, acknowledges what has been going on, but allows for the possibility of change, allows for the rest of it to be a different kind of day. So it is with “disabled,” it presumes lack: lack of ability, lack of intelligence, even lack of hope. With the bar set so low, you wouldn’t hold out for a person to soar above it. But in presuming intelligence, we unlock a door and ready it for opening.

It is estimated that 15 percent of the world’s population has some form of disability, yet there are still many stigmas that people face. Widespread use of the R-word, a hurtful and degrading term, persists in 2014. Unflattering labels and stereotypes compel many people to remain silent in their struggles. “For that simple reason, we know we have many students across Canadian campuses who do not disclose that they have a disability” says Hagen. “They are afraid of being stigmatized or discriminated against. This is especially true for students with ‘invisible’ disabilities such as mental health issues, learning disabilities, and others.”

Events like the International Day of Persons with Disabilities are one way to shed light on disability issues and the realities faced by people with disabilities every day. By increasing awareness and promoting understanding of the issues, society can make meaningful progress towards creating a world that is truly inclusive, offering full acceptance to all.