TORONTO — People have always tried to put Nathan Gaba in a metaphorical box because of his cerebral palsy.
On one hand, some people say he’s not strong enough to do certain activities; but on the other hand, as a young Black man, he’s had to repeatedly prove his disability — including to police officers who’ve accused him of stealing his walker.
“Whether I go on a walk or go to the movies with my friends, I’m constantly getting really negative stares,” the 21-year-old Toronto native told CTVNews.ca in a video interview.
People’s misconceptions and the stigma that results are his biggest problems, Gaba says, not his disability. He doesn’t see his need for a cane or a walker as a problem, but rather what’s made him the “positive person that I am today.”
Now, he’s making sure others aren’t pigeonholed by their disability either.
This fall, he and a team of other youth with disabilities will be virtually visiting classrooms and workplaces to share tips for tackling systemic ableism.
It’s all part of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto’s “Dear Everybody” campaign, which kicked off its fifth year on Aug. 30.
Gaba’s topics during classroom visits have included building confidence in children with disabilities, ensuring others ask rather than assume what people with disabilities need or don’t, and getting non-disabled folks to be aware of how accessible a space or activity is.
“The more we have these engaging conversations, the more we’re learning and… the more accepting we can be to everybody,” Gaba said.
For example, aspiring criminal prosecutor Gavi Engel-Yan, who uses a permanent tube in her throat to help her breathe, wants people not to be ashamed to ask her to repeat something when they don’t understand. Artist Tai Young wants to see fellow wheelchair users on stage and in movies. Would-be journalist Rachel Kwok wants people to stop staring at her when she’s just living her life and getting around in her power wheelchair.
‘BE COMFORTABLE HAVING THESE CONVERSATIONS’
Through Gaba and others’ virtual visits, organizers estimate they’ve been able to reach at least 10 different workplaces, and about 10,000 students in 30 schools across Ontario. But organizers have their sights on expanding to the rest of the country.
Teachers or companies wishing to add their classrooms to the speaking tour, can sign up here.
Joining Gaba in classrooms is 24-year-old Ahsan Musavi who plays soccer but wears a specialized shoe to accommodate his left leg which is shorter than his right, due to childhood septic arthritis.
“I tell other kids with disabilities to start by getting involved and doing little things that you love. That will help you get to the place you want to be,” he wrote in a blog post.
Musavi, who’s also the coordinator of inclusive programs for the Toronto Blue Jays, says: “The biggest take away from my life is that a kid who has a shorter and weaker leg is playing soccer and scoring goals.”
During Gaba’s virtual visits, he doesn’t read from a script. Instead, he feels out what he’ll say based on his interactions with students.
To ease into tough conversations, he looks for common ground. For example, with non-disabled youth, he points out how everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.
And when he’s speaking to fellow youth with disabilities, he instils ideas such as “self-esteem, self-advocacy, taking initiative [and] not waiting on other people to do things but to do it yourself.”
Gaba said disabilities aren’t something to be ashamed of: “I just want them to be comfortable having these conversations.”
‘IT GENUINELY GIVES ME SUCH A STRONG SENSE OF PURPOSE’
Advocates, like Gaba, have long said fixing systemic ableism makes society more equitable and allows everyone to live better lives. Before his first classroom visits last year, Gaba initially thought students would be bored or inattentive to speaking about ableism and inclusion: “But I was completely wrong.”
Through his classroom visits, some kids have opened up about how much they love their friend who might have trouble seeing; others have shared how they sometimes help classmates with disabilities; with some children with disabilities describing how they’ve learned how to tell others they don’t need help.
“They share all these really beautiful, amazing stories,” Gaba said. “It genuinely gives me such a strong sense of purpose.”