One voice can make a difference, says Richard Ruston, Vice President, People First of Ontario.
And it is hoped many voices united through a broad-based three-year discussion on inclusion will enhance the quality of community life, spirit and pride for those living with intellectual disabilities.
“I think it’s to start building relationships in community,” Ruston said Friday afternoon in the Tillsonburg Complex Lion’s Den, one of five sites celebrating a working launch of a province-wide initiative. “Instead of saying ‘you go here, you go there,’ having more of a voice where I want to be.”
People First is an organization dedicated to promoting equality for all persons, highlighting abilities and strengths of people with intellectual disabilities, in effect, respecting the right to be seen as people, first.
The organization’s membership is an integral component to a three-year province-wide project seeking answers to the question: ‘What does it take to be totally included?’
“They don’t want to be the recipients all the time of something fixed, or something being done for them,” said Kimberley Gavan, Director of Community Development, Community Living Ontario. “They want to be part of the solutions and building a healthy, vibrant community.”
People First chapters are starting the conversation, says Gavan, opening with talking points including: A) What is currently working? and B) What do we need to build on?
“So there’s a real sense of belonging for everyone.”
But while the conversation starts with People First members, it is very much intended to engage a broad spectrum, taking the process well beyond a disability issue.
“This is a community issue,” said Gavan.
The effort can be summed up rather simply.
“Being accepted for me, as me,” said Ruston. “Like Popeye says, I am who I am.”
He believes smaller communities are more accepting, and provide more opportunities to become involved in community life, compared to large urban centres.
“It’s so big and people don’t look beyond… they look at a person’s disability rather than their strengths.”
Ruston says public attitudes are improving, in part perhaps because of the efforts of organizations including People First.
“It’s getting a lot better than it used to be. A lot of us are out there advocating for people.
“My voice goes a long ways,” he added, emphasizing the importance of being involved.
Benefits from the dialogue go both ways, Ruston believes.
“People can learn from me and I can learn from them.”
It is important the discussion involves both People First members and professionals, along with the community, he added.
“Both, they both have ideas.”
The program was launched Friday in Tillsonburg, Brockville, Huntsville, Welland and Peterborough.
“We’re very happy to be part of it,” said Sandra Bray, Advisor for People First of Tillsonburg and event coordinator. “It’s an honour we were picked.”
The local launch involved People First delegates from Tillsonburg, St. Marys, Woodstock, St. Thomas and Stratford along with support staff and invitees from their communities.
“People First is hosting the conversation, but it’s a community conversation,” said Gavan, focussed on building richer, stronger, welcoming and inclusive environments. “All of that.
“This is really the first conversation in a long conversation,” she added.
The day featured facilitated discussion, a growing idea board and concluded with suggestions from round-table discussions including providing employment opportunities, using one’s voice and being a ‘voice’ for others, the importance of affordable housing, standing up for people and animals being abused or hurt, and the value of volunteering more.
“It’s been awesome,” Ruston concluded. “Seeing other people and getting involved.”