Ryerson Stands with #BlackLivesMatterTO

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http://theeyeopener.com/2016/04/ryerson-students-march-with-blm-to/

Garnering a lot of media attention lately has been Toronto’s very own Black Lives Matter movement. A very pertinent social justice issue of our time, the Black Lives Matter movement holds its roots in our neighbouring country, the United States, where the current racial climate is centred on the persecution of the members of the black community. There have been numerous injustices involving the various police officers in different states of America, wrongly persecuting black individuals, namely, young black men. Unfortunately, for the majority, the result has been death for these wrongly persecuted individuals. This has led to a revolution in the black community; the Black Lives Matter activists used their voices to speak out on such injustices and bring honor to the fallen people of their community. They have protested various streets in the United States, asking government officials and police department officials to end the racial profiling and racial discrimination. The powerful voices of the Black Lives Matter movement in the States has been heard all around the world – including our very own neighbourhood, Toronto.

The Black Lives Matter Toronto – Coalition was is made up of Black Torontonians working in solidarity with various communities in our local streets of Toronto to work towards a common goal: social justice. This group has acknowledged the deep racial discrimination and stigmatization that black communities in the States have been going through, and have noticed similar patterns of behaviour in our very own neighbourhood. Currently, the Black Lives Matter Toronto activists have been fighting for justice for the death of Andrew Loku.

Andrew Loku was a 45 year old man, living in an apartment building on Eglinton Ave. W and Caledonia Ave. On the evening of July 4, 2015, Andrew was disturbed in his sleep by a significantly loud noise from his upstairs neighbours. He asked them continuously to minimize the noise, so that he can be able to sleep, but the noise persisted. Overwhelmed by the loud noise, and being unable to sleep, Loku grabbed a hammer and began banging it against the apartment hallway doors and walls. The police were called to address this particular noise. Within seconds of the police officer’s arrivals, a police officer shot Andrew Loku twice, killing him in the hallway of his apartment building.

Andrew Loku was regarded by all those who knew him as a kind and friendly man. He was a husband and a father to five children, and lived alone in Toronto, while working to bring his family to Canada from where they currently live in South Sudan. He graduated from George Brown College in the construction program, and worked various jobs to make ends meet for himself and for his family back in South Sudan.

The Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition has challenged the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to release the name of the officer who shot Andrew Loku, having not been in immediate danger or threat himself. The identity of the officer has remained un-released while the SIU investigates logistics of the situation – such as whether or not officers were notified that the building in which they were responding to, the building that Andrew Loku resided in, was leased by the Canadian Mental Health Association. This apartment complex offered affordable housing services for people suffering with a mental illness. The Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition have worked tirelessly in protest, rain or shine – snow or sun, to plead to government officials, such as Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, to address this serious injustice. As such, the officer who fatally shot Andrew Loku has not yet been charged for this unjust act nearly a year after his untimely death.

I have had the privilege of visiting the hub of the protests on 40 College Street, where I met protestors from BLM-TO. It was an environment unlike any other. While one would imagine a protest to have quite a tense, aggressive, and hostile energy, the BLM-TO exuded nothing but love and hospitality to all those who observed and/or joined the protest. There was food, water, warm blankets, gloves, and hats being passed around to the protestors – not just from amongst one another, but from the on-lookers as well. There were shouts of social justice, peace, and equality. There were cries and pleads of putting an end to racial profiling and discrimination, and a plea to the SIU and the Toronto Police Department to be accountable for their actions. There was music, dancing, motivating speeches, laughter, and deep discussions to honor the valuable black lives lost to racial injustices.

It was a pleasant surprise to see Ryerson students in solidarity with BLM-TO on campus the other day. The march was organized by numerous student groups on campus, in collaboration with BLM-TO, to protest social justice in and around the Ryerson community. With Ryerson being at the very heart of Toronto, it seemed only natural that Ryerson students stand in solidarity with our community. Among the student groups during this march for social justice included the Ryerson East Africans’ Students Association (REASA); Ryerson Student Union (RSU); and the United Black Students at Ryerson (UBSR). During the march, the students in protest used their voices to urge other fellow students to show their support by donating supplies, food, water, warm clothing, etc to the BLM-TO Coalition, to encourage the progression of the protest. Students on campus were eager and receptive to what Ryerson students and BLM-TO had to say, and showed their solidarity with the movement. It was a refreshing and culturally enriching experience to have witnessed – and frankly, it made me even more proud to be a Ram and a Torontonian.

If you would like to donate and show your support and solidarity, BLM-TO can be found here:

Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition Facebook

Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition Twitter

blacklivesmatterTO@gmail.com

40 College Street, Toronto, ON

Resources:

http://news.nationalpost.com/toronto/the-life-and-bloody-death-of-andrew-loku

http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2015/07/07/andrew-lokus-death-by-a-police-bullet-came-quickly-witness-says.html

Write this Winter

a photograph of a spiral notebook wih a pen.  It is resting ontop of a laptop keyboard.

The holidays are over and the cold weather appears to be settling in. If you are anything like me, then you are probably in hibernation mode, glass of mulled wine in one hand and book in the other, waiting (apprehensively) for the reality and deadlines of this semester’s papers to hit you. To help get you (and myself) motivated to shake off that holiday fueled brain fog, here are some tips that I have been trying.

Time Yourself

There is nothing worse that sitting down to write a paper and then finding a hundred other things to do online. Realizing too late that you spent 3 hours doing nothing. I have started timing myself and this seems to be helping. I started with 30 minutes and am now using a 1 hour alarm. It’s surprising how comforting it can be to know that you only have to work for another 15 minutes before you can take a break. While taking breaks can be helpful, I find this method ensures that I am at least getting some thoughts and ideas down before I surf facebook or procrasti-clean my apartment for the tenth time.

Try Listening instead of reading

I find that with the amount of research and readings I do for work and school, I have difficulty finding the energy to pick up another book. This is especially true when I am knee deep in research as I know reading for pleasure will become just another form of procrastination for me. I have been listening to audio books instead. The two apps I have been using are Overdrive and One Click e Audio. Both allow you to use your library card and borrow audio books. The great thing about audio books is that I only listen to them in transit and my tired. overworked eyes get a break. There are also a great selection of podcasts about writing that are free to download.

Change your scenery

I tend to write in my apartment, at my desk or table, or if I desperately need to feel relaxed I will try on the couch. However, I have started to take my write on the move. Have laptop/notebook will travel. It’s surprising how much of a difference this makes. It is worth it to source out the coffee shops, pubs or comfy hangs near you. Especially if they don’t have wifi. Breathe. Yes, I am suggesting that you go somewhere where there is no wifi. This can help you focus and get down to the business at hand.

Whatever you try to get you motivated this winter… just remember practice does make perfect. Or at least practice makes better.

 

The Ivory Tower of Academia

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My inner critic has been loud of late. “This presentation isn’t good enough, you should have done more readings, you are going to submit that?” It’s easy to let my mind run away with itself. Only coming back to myself as I run screaming through the woods of my mind.

I intellectually understand that my work is not meant to be the same as others. That different does not equate with worse. That just because I don’t use ‘praxis’ doesn’t mean I don’t do it. There are so many things I love about academia. I love learning. I love sharing what I have learned. I love writing. I don’t love the comparison that can sometimes accompany it. I don’t love the way academia can obscure and complicate ideas. I don’t love the exclusion.

When I first entered university several years ago, I had dreams of enlightenment and learning for the sake of learning. This is sadly, not what the university system produces. The system is focussed on producing regregetators not thinkers. I am lucky to be a program that values critical thinking but balancing that with the overwhelming pressure to be ‘academic’ is, well, overwhelming.

So what can be done about this? I can continue to try to write in plain language and to try to make what I am learning accessible. I understand that language matters. That academic jargon can fit in with academic work which is sometimes useful but I want to move beyond this. I love what I have been learning about research, about ways to enhance and challenge what we understand as knowledge. But if I cannot share this with a non academic audience, then what’s the point? I don’t want to be involved in creating knowledge which can’t be accessed. Despite what some academics might think plain language is not dumbing down your work. Plain language doesn’t make your research soft. It adds value. If academia is to survive and encourage people to learn for the sake of learning, not just a well paying job, then we need to ditch the jargon and overly complicated phrases.

It seems so lonely in the academic ivory tower. I feel like an outsider. I want to invite others in. There is safety in numbers.

Good Kings, Bad Kings: A Review

The cover of the book

I was once told that you can tell the tenor of a book by the first few lines. “My tia Nene said three is the magic number and when three things happen to you are so, so bad and you feel like the whole wide world is just throwing up on your shoes, don’t worry. Your bad luck is about to change” (Nussbaum, 2012). This is the opening of Susan Nussbaum’s award winning debut novel, Good Kings, Bad Kings.  The those first lines drew me in and for the next day all I could do was read, cry, rage, laugh and read some more.

The story revolves around the lives of seven people; young disabled pre-teens and adults, staff, and recruiters, whose lives are shaped by their involvement or incarnation at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center. Nussbaum writes the classic coming of age story for a group of young adults who happen to be disabled and for a variety of reasons end up at this state run nursing home.

The novel is based on research that Nussbaum had been doing while she was working at an Access Centre. In an interview for Bitch Magazine she states that “the whole staff would get frequent emails detailing horrifying incidents that occurred at various nursing homes or other institutions.  I started keeping the articles, and after awhile I started gathering studies, law journals, newspapers, whatever I could get my hands on.  I suppose I knew I’d write a book, or try to, and that it would be a novel.” (http://bitchmagazine.org/post/an-interview-with-disability-activist-and-good-kings-bad-kings-author-susan-nussbaum).

Good Kings, Bad Kings, is written almost as a play; you can see in your minds eye characters coming to the front of the stage to relate their part of the story. The scenes are so vividly described that you can lose yourself in the novel. The brilliance of the work is that it not only shows the good and the bad, but all of the varying shades of gray in between. While, there are clear heroes and protagonists, these lines blur at points in the novel. It does not focus on pity nor do the main disabled characters require non disabled people to ‘free’ them, rather it tells the story of resistance, pride and humour.

Susan Nussbaum, a disabled writer, activist, and playwright won the 2012 Barbara Kingsolver’s PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction for Good Kings, Bad Kings. She states that, “I can’t stand the way disabled characters are used in most books, and for that matter in TV and film.  We always see the lone disabled character surrounded by non-disabled characters, and there’s only one reason there’s a disabled character in the story in the first place and that is to have a disability, which serves as The Problem.” (http://bitchmagazine.org/post/an-interview-with-disability-activist-and-good-kings-bad-kings-author-susan-nussbaum).

Good Kings, Bad Kings turns the idea of ‘disability as the problem’ on it’s head and creates disabled characters which run the plot rather than fill a stereotypical need. It is a really engaging story which I would recommend you read.

 

Writing Tips

page with cursive writing with the word 'writing' on the side

So you want to write? Well, here are some tips to get your writing on track.

1. Read. Read a lot, read often, read everything you can get your hands on. Not only will reading spark your imagination, it will improve your sentence structure and grammar. Also, try reading books on writing. I would suggest, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins.

2. Find people to edit and critique your work. While initially writing may seem like a solitary occupation, in reality the only way your writing will improve is with constructive criticism. You can find this from family, friends or class mates. The public library hosts free writing workshops. Also, most universities and colleges have writing workshops. You will have to pay for these, but it might be a good place to polish a piece you have been working on for a while. Many of these workshops deal with specific forms of writing, say, poetry or children’s books so you can get advice for your chosen genre.

3. Pay attention to what you see and hear. Eavesdropping and people watching are great activities for writers. You never know if what you see or hear one day will make the basis for a story, novel, blog or poem.

4. Write. Sounds obvious right. This is sometimes the hardest part. Start keeping a journal and try to write everyday. Get a good pen, one which flows and feels good to write with. Also, consider the type of journal or notebook you are using. Are the pages too small? Is this hampering your writing? If you are feeling blocked try a writing exercise. I really like to free write. I set a timer for 10-15 minutes and then pick a topic. Sometimes topics are just one word, like yesterday, or now. Or it could be a phrase like, ‘I wish that …’ or a description activity like describe the house you grew up in. Sometimes I just pick a random quote from a book I like and then pick up from where it leaves off. It doesn’t matter how you get started, the point is not to stop. Don’t erase, scratch out or correct, just keep writing everything that comes into your head regardless of what it is. You would be surprised with what comes out. Make sure you save these notebooks too. Come back to them occasionally and see if anything sparks an idea for you.

5. Put it out there. Okay, so now you have a body of work. What to do with it? Put it out there. This isn’t always easy, (In fact it’s rarely easy) but it’s worth. Read magazines, newspapers and blogs. See where your writing might fit and then check there submission guidelines. The important thing to remember is not to get discouraged when you get rejected. Lots of great writers get rejected. Just keep trying.

Andy Capp Helps the Handicapped

The top section of a donation box with Andy Capp at a bar

Someone gave me a piece of history yesterday. It’s a donation collection box. The caption on the front says “Help Andy Capp helped handi-capped people”. There is a picture of Andy Capp with his hand in his pocket holding a foamy beer and saying “cheers”. When you put coins in Andy raises he glass (I guess to toast you as a donor). When I got it I had to look up who Andy Capp was, I had initially assumed that the box was presenting ‘handi-capped’ people as lazy drunkards. For those like me who didn’t know who Andy Capp was, he is based on a comic strip. His character is usually drunk. He is a lazy lay about who, in the past, was depicted as a wife abuser. He and his wife are always on the verge of poverty. Using Andy Capp as a character raising money for disabled people, the collection box’s message is that disabled people are worse off than a shiftless, drunk, layabout. That even a ‘bum’ can throw a few pennies to the ‘handi-capped’.

While we would probably never see a collection box like this anymore, the idea that disabled people deserve charity is unfortunately not history. I spent several years working at agencies which supported people with intellectual impairments. We were always throwing fundraisers. At the time I thought that these were great ways to fund programs and raise awareness. In hindsight, I can see that these fundraisers were not raising awareness rather they were and are reenforcing the stereotype that disabled people need charity rather than rights.

These images of charity are everywhere. I see them everyday on the subway and bus to work. You know the ad promoting a disability related charity with the picture of the cute little kid. While the ads may not use the term handicapped anymore, the message is really the same. Disabled people, those who are marketable, are deserving and should get money for services. I used to volunteer for an organization that provided services to older women, many who were under housed and experience mental health. It was so difficult to raise funds because these women were not an attractive cause, they were not marketable.

As non disabled people we feel entitled to all the services we receive. If those services depended on charity rather than rights and we were denied services we would be outraged. People with disabilities don’t have the same option to be outraged. Most are too busy trying to make sure that they can get the services they need. They have to be concerned about what being outraged could cost them. While they be viewed as ‘difficult’? Will it be harder for them to secure what services they can? Will they loose services?

So let’s leave history in the past. Andy Capp and handicapped are no longer used. Let’s leave the charity model in the past too.

AAC Awareness Month

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Among the hundreds of other national monthly observances (and there are tons, who knew, check them all out http://www.brownielocks.com/october.html), October is national AAC awareness month. For those who are considering googling what AAC means, not to worry, you aren’t alone. (Part of the reason that AAC needs awareness) AAC stands for alternative and augmentative communication. AAC is a broad umbrella term that encompasses a variety of different methods for producing or understanding verbal and written communication. So this can range from large print, plain language, picture symbols, forms of sign language, eye movements, high tech devices like iPads or Dyna Voxs, or Bliss Symbolics.

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You are probably thinking right now that you don’t know anyone who uses AAC technology. Guess again. I bet you used AAC technology already today. Did you send a text message with an emotocon, use a voice app, work on your iPad, interpret symbols of a map or in an elevator? Our lives are full of AAC technology, we just don’t recognize it.

Our use of AAC technologies and techniques has only increased. I see mothers teaching their children forms of American Sign Language or using picture symbols to increase their communication. I see people using voice recorders to send text messages or post on Facebook. I see people using picture based signs to navigate their way around the city. AAC technology doesn’t just make the lives of people with verbal impairments easier, it makes all of our lives easier.

For me, the most important element of a basic AAC technique, which is rapidly disappearing in society, is the need to slow down and really listen to what the other person is saying. Not just with words, but with their eyes, their hands, their entire body. It seems like it is easier to just hurl pleasantries at people as we run our separate directions. Taking the time to slow down and listen is something everyone could benefit from. I work as an attendant for a man with a verbal impairment. He can say more with a movement of his eye brows than most people can in twenty minutes, you just have to take the time to sit with him.

Communication isn’t a one way street, but most of us are so caught up in thinking about we are going to do next, or what we are having for dinner, or what errands we have to run later. Being present with another human being, really being mindful is what is at the heart of alternative and augmentative communication. I think that deserves more than a month of awareness, don’t you?

If you are interested in learning more about AAC, check out these websites…

https://www.isaac-online.org/english/home/

http://aac.unl.edu

http://www.aacinstitute.org

 

The Perfect Summer Read

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Are you headed to the cottage this summer, or perhaps farther abroad?  Looking for the perfect book to take for the trip?  Here are some of my favourites which might become your favourites too.

I am fan of historical fiction, especially historical murder mysteries.  There is nothing like a good mystery set in medieval England or ancient Rome.  There are two authors that I have recently become enamored with, Ruth Downie and Margaret Frazer.  Downie’s books are set in the Roman Empire and involve a medic who unintentionally becomes a detective.  Look for Semper Fidelis or Medicus.  The books are engrossing and really historically accurate.  Margaret Frazer writes murder mysteries set in medieval England.  The crimes are always solved by Dame Frevisse, a 15th century nun with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.  They don’t have to be read in order, but you might want to start with the first in the series, The Novice’s Tale.

If murder mysteries aren’t your cup of tea, how about some brilliantly clever and witty Canadian literature.  I found myself reading every one of Timothy Findley books before I could help myself.  There are two that would be the perfect summer read.  Not Wanted on the Voyage and HeadhunterNot Wanted on the Voyage is the story of Noah’s ark told from the point of view of the cat.  Even if you aren’t interested in religion or no nothing of the flood myth you will love this book.  Headhunter is another exception read.  It is set in Toronto.  A woman sees Mr. Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness escape from his book in the Metro Reference Library.  Findley weaves the chase for Kurtz through the alleys of the Annex.

If you are looking for something a little bit more involved then why not try some ethnographic literature.  I just finished reading one called Turning Gold Gray by Timothy Diamond.  Diamond, a sociologist, goes to college to become a nurses assistant and writes about his experiences and observations while working at several nursing homes in Chicago.  I know, I know, it sound dry right.  Wrong.  It is really well written and is more of a story.  If you have any interest in health care, geriatrics, or sociology then this could be the perfect summer read for you.  Why not try Riding the Bus with my Sister by Rachel Simon.  Its revolves around her relationship with her mentally disabled twin sister and is her masters thesis.

Looking for something perhaps a little deeper?  More meaningful?  How about Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach.  Bach is also the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull if you were wondering why the name sounded familiar.  This book deals with similar themes and philosophy.  You could always try Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  A classic novel about religion, spirituality, and well, life.

If none of these recommendations seem like a good fit they try what I do when I am at a loss for what to read.  I pick a library at random and walk the shelves pulling out every book that has an interesting title or cover.  Sounds a little silly, to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes it works.

The Power of Words

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Several years ago I read The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye.  I remember being blown away by the obvious: we create our world, our reality through language.  In order to separate objects and people we use language. Eventually we move from identifying to imagination. Imaginative language involves constructing our world rather than describing it.  How obvious and simple you are saying.  Yes, it is.  However, take a second to really think about what that means with the language we throw around on a regular basis.

To get to work in the morning I take a long bus ride which passes three separate schools, from elementary to high school both public and private.  It is fascinating to eavesdrop on the conversations of children.  Many of the expressions are unfortunate but not all that surprising.  Lame, gay, retarded. Thinking back to my elementary and high school career I cringe at some of the language I am sure I unthinkingly used.  It’s not just about language used by school kids or about buzz words.  Rather, I am fascinated by our use of language to separate and stigmatize.

It’s so subtle and so seemingly innocent that I wonder if most people even notice, or if they do if they think is even worth addressing.

I mean, so what if a kid on the bus describes something as gay, or the news caster says that the traffic situation is crippling Toronto, or if the person next you says that guy over there is retarded.  I mean does it really matter.  I have this discussion regularly and I believe that it does.  If Frye was right and language is how we create our world then we need to think about what kind of world we want to create every time we speak.  Everyone will make their own call, but personally I want to create a world in which physical, intellectual or sexual characteristics and traits aren’t used as insults.

In my opinion it’s a slippery slope and one which often isn’t recognized.  How simple it is to move from referring to something as ‘crippled’ to thinking that crippled equals broken to thinking that people with physical disabilities are broken.  Okay, you say, but it’s just an expression.  You don’t really mean it.  You would never say it to someone’s face after all.  As though you can spot the person who is disabled or gay!  As if not saying it to them would somehow make it okay to say it to everyone else.

I have been reading Aristotle recently.  Instead of asking what should I do, what is the moral or right choice, Aristotle asked what kind of person should I be.  What kind of person I want to be is directly related to what kind of world I want to construct. I think that Aristotle would have liked Northrop Frye.

From Academic Privilege to Plain Language

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This morning I submitted the last of my assignments.  I am currently enrolled in the Disability Studies Program.  One would think in a program designed to deepen an understanding of the social construction of disability it would be easier to write in plain language.  It isn’t.

I recently overheard someone say that plain language is ‘dumbing’ down your writing style.  This is exactly what it isn’t.  Plain language should be about checking our academic privilege at the door and writing in a manner which will make it clear to everyone.  It isn’t about accommodating people labelled with intellectual disabilities or learning difficulties: it’s about writing so that everyone; child, adult, disabled, non disabled, educated, under educated can understand.

In the disability studies program we are asked to think about the levels of privilege, power and oppression that we all deal with.  Using plain language is a way to remove one more layer of oppression.  Let me show you what I mean.  I am privileged.  I have had the financial ability to pursue a university degree, the socioeconomic background to attend good schools, my parents had stable employment and were able to be home to help with school work when I was younger, and being a Canadian citizen whose first language is English made it easier for me to excel in educational programs designed for native English speakers.  All of these factors are layers of privilege.  I didn’t earn these privileges.  I was born with them.  They aren’t something that I should regret or feel ashamed of.  I should think about how I use them though.  Using plain language (or attempting to) is a way for me to avoid using my level of privilege in a way which might oppress someone else.

This is much more difficult than it sounds and it of course depends on your audience.  Essays I submit for my classes tend to be more formal and involve a more complicated writing style and structure, blog post less so.  I do think it is possible to write about complicated themes in plain language.  In fact, I think it is better to do so.  I find that by really getting to the heart of the issue, not only do I understand it better, but I can explain it more clearly.  I get wordy and complicated when I don’t really understand what I am writing.

The world we are living in relies more and more on the written word; text messages, facebook updates, blog posts, emails, google searches and more.  Think how much it would benefit you and everyone else if plain language was used more often.

To learn more about plain language, check out the following websites.

Center for Plain Language

http://centerforplainlanguage.org/about-plain-language/checklist/

Government of Canada’s Translation Bureau

http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tcdnstyl-chap?lang=eng&lettr=chapsect13&info0=13

Central Alberta Self Advocates Plain Language Society

http://www.casapls.ca