Panhandling – Social Justice is Not Charity

a photograph of the Toronto Homeless Memorial

Over the last few weeks there has been a barrage of articles about panhandling and homeless. I understand this. It’s January. Toronto is cold, freezing actually. Shelters are over full and Shabbir Jaffa and another unidentified man died because of these facts. Sadly these are issues that we drop come July or August. I recently read an article about how to give to panhandlers. The author states that they are unwilling to give money because they are unsure how it will be used and don’t want to an unwitting participate in the person’s harm. Stating, “I am not trying make gross assumptions about addictions and homelessness, nor am I taking a stance on the issue of how one spends their money because both of these issues are very complex … but suffice it to say that I believe everyone has the right to do with their money as they wish and once you give money to someone else, they have that right just like anyone else.”

Yet, this statement does make gross assumptions about homelessness and the people who experience it. In a recent study of people panhandling in San Francisco, 94% disclosed that they spend the money they collect while panhandling on food. Less than half admitted to spending that money on drugs or alcohol.  Even if that were not true, who are we to judge how someone else spends their money? It feels as we need to treat homeless people as children, as not capable of making decisions which would be best for their situation. You may not want to give money to homeless people, that is your right, but feeling bad about it, is your choice not theirs.

The author writes, “when we’re in the car and are approached by someone at a red light, we always feel awful. Keeping the window closed and ignoring them seems like no way to behave.” So don’t, open the window, say hello. Say you have nothing to offer.

The author goes on “It’s nice to have a mix of healthy snacks and treats. Our kits will include: granola bars, bottled water, juice, protein bars, raisins, a $5 gift card to Tim Hortons and a note saying, “Have a nice day”. You could also include a small flashlight with batteries or some Hot Paws in the winter. Purchase some cellophane bags and ribbon from the Dollar Store and package individual kits. Storing 5 kits in your glove box is a good place to start.”

While, the sentiment is well meant. I wonder what it would be like to be on the receiving end. Each item separately might be okay to receive, but I suspect that a pretty package wrapped with ribbons and a note wishing them ‘a nice day’ would feel demeaning. This is not a child’s lunch box after all.

While I understand the desire to give and to have your children see compassion in action. I think there are more productive and less demeaning ways to go about this. Cathy Crowe, a Toronto street nurse, has this suggestion, “ I have a formula to help …. and it’s based on the notion that social justice involves more than charity. The equation is simple. It’s one-third plus one-third plus one-third and it’s a formula for social justice not charity. The formula ingredients could be your time, your energy, your passion, your creativity, your letter writing or some other skill, your donations including your money.”

Homelessness is a complex issue. It can be an uncomfortable one. Unpacking privilege is not an easy process. One we collectively need to work if we are to stop people from dying on our streets.

Blogging Inclusion

photo of a computer keyboard with a finger hitting a key which reads 'blog'

At its most basic definition inclusion means the act of being included. But who gets included, included in what, included where and how? Inclusion is a messy idea. An idea whose meaning for me maybe very different from your meaning. Part of this may depend on the different levels of privilege or oppression that are our starting points.

Inclusion is now a buzzword. Agencies and organizations all want to ensure they are providing inclusive opportunities for disabled persons. What does this means for those who are labelled as disabled? In some cases, it means buildings and spaces are now open to everyone, that services are available to those who require accommodation. Creating a society in which everyone can be included if they choose to is of enormous value but is being included in the dominant narrative what everyone wants? Social inclusion has become more about ‘a set of normative practices’ – about consumption and lifestyle, and identity – than the transformation of society. The emphasis is now being placed on the individual, and their social engagement and activity rather than the societal structures that create exclusion and marginalization.

So how can people speak back to this excluded process of inclusion? Storytelling and personal narrative is one way. The internet and blogging platforms have enabled some marginalized people to create their own space, an online community in which new forms of normality and inclusion can be shaped. Disable people have expressed their lack of desire and/or ability to reach the standards set by social inclusionary policy and practices by seeking out and developing other ways and spaces within which to experience inclusion. One disabled blogger, Agent Fang, writes, “originally when I started this blog, it was for the purpose of cathartic ranting. Rubbish hotels, dealing with my impairments, crappy employment experiences, you name it, I bitched about it. It was great. Another great thing was that a lot of other people were doing it too … I felt a real sense of online community with other disabled people. Blogging was a new craze and we owned a little corner of it.” (http://fangworld.blogspot.ca/).

While bloggers and their sites ebb and flow over time, the pronounced desire for an inclusive community outside of normative values does not. Blogs and communities like The Body is Not an Apology, Diary of a Goldfish, Ragged Edge, Blogging Against Disableism Day and Autistics Speaking Day – Taking Back Autism Awareness, to name a few, are some of the online communities who are alive and well who are forging pride online.

My Placement: The Adoption Council of Ontario

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During the 3rd and 4th year of Ryerson’s Bachelor of Social Work Program students complete a practicum in the field.  Being in third year, I started my first field placement this semester. I have been extremely fortunate to have a great placement where there is lot’s to do and learn.  I’m currently doing my placement with the Adoption Council of Ontario.

The Adoption Council of Ontario is a non-profit organization that provides outreach, education and support to all of those touched by the adoption process including adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents and adoption professionals.  They deal with all types of adoption including public, private, international and relative.

So far my placement has been with the AdoptOntario program which is for families interested in adoption.  The program supports the connection between prospective adoptive parents and children waiting to be adopted in the foster care system.  A large piece of this program is technology.  AdoptOntario is made up of two inter-related websites; the public facing site and the professional site.  The public site provides educational resources, information and events about adoption, information on the course required to become AdoptReady, a photolisting site of waiting children and clinical support for both families and adoption workers via phone and e-mail.  The professional site provides an Adoption Resources Databank that host families and children waiting to be adopted.  This databank has a matching tool used to connect families with children.  Each month an e-mail with new potential matches is sent to the adoption workers of both families and waiting children.

My placement thus far has included training, participating in webinars, creating profiles for families and children on the databank, administrative tasks for accounts (eg. unlocks, renewal, sign up), participating in clinical coordinator meetings, speaking to adoption workers and prospective parents and preparing for the upcoming Adoption Resource Exchange.  It is a very busy placement with little down time and I love it.  There are many learning opportunities that my placement has allowed me to participate in.  For example, I will be present at a best practices round table which will include all of those involved in the adoption process.

The Adoption Council of Ontario is a not for profit organization that runs on the generosity of donation.  During the Adoption Fun Walk, ACO’s annual fundraiser, an anonymous donor announced that they will be matching donations made up to $10 000.  This means that if you donate $5, it becomes $10.  Adoption Council of Ontario does amazing work with one simple goal in mind; all children should have a family forever.  If you plan on donating to an organization, cause, etc. I really encourage you to consider donating to Adoption Council of Ontario.  Your donation will be doubled and goes towards a goal of every child in Ontario having a family.
Donations can be made here: https://www.donationaid.com/aco-donate

Sources:
Adoption Council of Ontario Website- www.adoption.on.ca
AdoptOntario Website- www.adoptontario.ca

 

Social Justice Week At Ryerson

the flyer for the events for social justice week

Like many Ryerson students and alumni who don’t live near campus or who work during the day, I wasn’t able to make it to as many Social Justice week events as I would have liked, but what I did experience was profound.

I attended the entire day of workshops, lectures and performances on Thursday, October 9. This day was hosted by the School of Social Work and the School of Disability Studies. In the morning, I attended skills workshop entitled, New Media and Innovative Organizing. There were three panelists for this workshop. One focused on writing and narrative as a form of activism, another on digital story telling and the third on photographic voice as a research method. I think sometimes, activists get stuck on one kind of organizing and while I have seen the power and usefulness of marches and demonstrations, there is something so beautiful and subversive about using art as a way to speak back to the dominate narrative. however, this is not to say that it is easier. Issues with funding, research methodologies, soft vs. hard research and ways in which each panelist had dealt with these issues were discussed.

In the afternoon there were issues tables to discuss ways to practically start organizing. I attended a table hosted by some former members of the Social Work Anti-Oppression Coalition. These students organized when they were in the program to change the program and to work on unpacking their privilege. It was exceptionally powerful and sad to hear that this coalition no longer exists. The main speaker for this table discussion stated that the main reason for the success of the group was because they came from a place of love. This resonated with me. Winnie Ng, the holder of the CAW-Sam Gidin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy who organizes social justice week has said the same. I was lucky enough to be able to take Leadership for Social Action with her a couple of summer’s ago, in which she stated that social change starts with the heart, then moves to the hand. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha said the same recently at a poetry slam; loving is a revolutionary act.

The final event of the day was a dance performance by Spirit Synott, an internationally renowned dancer and a group of Ryerson dance students. The performance, titled Dare, was beautiful and well choreographed considering the group collectively created the piece in a week. Sprit, who uses a wheelchair and the dancers highlighted the barriers faced by those who use mobility devices. This was highlighted even more by the fact that Spirit and the group could not rehearse at the dance studios as they are inaccessible. I hope recordings of this performance is viewed by the president of Ryerson University and changes are made to the inaccessible nature of our campus. Beyond that, I hope that everyone who attended social justice week, takes something away and collectively we work to make our campus a welcoming space for all bodies.

“Let me know when you get home”

 

 

Photo Credit: Darina BenAmara

Photo Credit: Darina BenAmara

“Let me know when you get home”.  We hear and say this phrase a lot; as we part ways, before we walk home and when we get on transit.  By “we”, I mean female-identified individuals.  My female friends are the only ones who say this to me and I only say it to my female friends.  For something so often said, it’s a very loaded phrase.

I started thinking about how loaded this phrase is on September 20th, the evening of the 2014 Take Back the Night march.  There were six of us getting together before the march; all female, all feminists, all in social work and all sitting in a circle eating pizza in my apartment.  As we were chatting about placements and school, one of the girls asked about why we were here and going to Take Back the Night.  Long story short, we are really pissed off about gender-based violence.  We talked about walking home alone at night as females and what we really mean when we tell a friend to “let me know when you get home”.

When we say “let me know when you get home”, we aren’t interested in each other’s whereabouts and whether you made a curfew if you have one.  This is about safety.  When we say “let me know when you get home” we are thinking of all the fears we have of walking home alone or taking transit at night.

When we say “let me know when you get home” we really mean let me know a ton of scenarios didn’t happen to you.  Let me know that you weren’t assaulted on your way home and didn’t become the 1 in 3 women who face sexual violence in their lifetime.  Let me know someone didn’t get off at the same bus stop as you and try to follow you home.  Let me know someone didn’t drag you into their car or pull you into an alleyway where no one can see.  Finally, let me know you made it home alive…literally.  This is how loaded that seven word phrase is.

Take Back the Night was amazing, empowering and we celebrated being feminists who took back the night with a beer at the Marquis of Granby after the march.  Despite taking back the night and demanding an end to gender-based violence very loudly, I still told my friend something along the lines of “let me know when you get home”.

During Jackson Katz’s Ted Talk he argued that all of the things we deem as women’s issues such as gender violence, domestic violence and sexual harassment are men’s issues- and he is right.  Women taking back the night is resistance and symbolic; women have done the majority of the work in feminist movements but men are the group that really need to step up if we are going to end gender-based violence.

The night being taken away from women isn’t something that just happened naturally.  It happened because women and trans people are assaulted, sexually assaulted, harassed and stalked.  Rape culture continued to take away the night by blaming women and trans people for their victimization.  Since then we’ve seen plenty of warnings; carry pepper spray, walk home in a group or just stay home at night.  We hear this way more than we hear “don’t assault someone on your way home”.

Even as we yelled through the streets of Toronto that we refuse to stay home and be silent, there was a group of young men on a bar patio who yelled over us “na na na na hey hey hey, goodbye”.  Our yelling doesn’t decrease the 1 in 3 chance, a change in their attitude does.  Although our yelling is necessary, this really is a men’s issue that men need to work on.  Women have done plenty around gender-based violence issues; it’s time for men to do more because women aren’t assaulting, raping and beating ourselves.

Maybe there needs to be a give back the night, representing male solidarity with women and trans people and showing they believe these streets are ours as well, day or night.

 

Volunteering at Holland Bloorview: A Student Perspective

Holland Bloorview- Playroom

At the beginning of 2014 I wrote an article about my volunteer position at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.  I gave a really brief overview of what Holland Bloorview does and what my position entails.  I listed other volunteer opportunities outside of the therapeutic playroom where I volunteer once a week and encouraged others to apply.  I will post a link to that blog below.  Holland Bloorview is recruiting volunteers for its programs and I would like to do my part by spreading the word.  While my last blog was a general overview of the hospital, this one is going to be about the benefits and learning opportunities I have had as a student who volunteers.

I have been volunteering in the therapeutic playroom for a year and a half.  In that time the learning and opportunities have been way beyond my expectations when I first applied.  First, as with any volunteer position, this can go on your resume.  During my interview for my 3rd year social work placement my volunteer experience was the part of my resume that was discussed the most.

Being in the playroom has also given me the opportunity to work with kids who have a wide range of disabilities.  I can say that I’ve worked with kids who have brain injuries, orthopaedic disabilities and disabilities considered complex and that require continuing care.  Not many volunteer positions offer or are even able to offer such a wide range of experiences.  I have learned how best to work with kids with these disabilities which will help me in future placements and my career.  I have also learned how to accommodate for children with disabilities.  For example, one child and I recently created our own version of brain injury basketball (safe for both of us!).

I have also learned how to accommodate on an individual level.  Under neoliberalism, social workers are to have check lists and not provide individualized services.  As anti-oppressive social workers we resist this.  By getting to know individual kids, this becomes a transferable skill to social work and other care professions.  Despite only being at the hospital once a week I learn which toys individual kids like to play with, the lyrics and actions to their favourite songs and how to comfort them when they are upset.  One child who comes to the playroom now recognizes me and is aware I know the words to his favourite song (and he is not shy to ask me to sing it with him).

The playroom has also provided me with the opportunity to gain additional skills that I can use in the future.  By observing the playroom staff I have been able to pick up some sign language that is commonly used such as “yes, “no”, “play” and “all done”.  I have been able to gain experience in communicating through picture symbols and computer technology.

I love my volunteer position in the therapeutic playroom at Holland Bloorview.  Even if I wasn’t presented with all of these wonderful learning opportunities, I would still continue to volunteer because I enjoy helping make kids and families experiences at Holland Bloorview positive ones.  As a student, I am grateful for the learning opportunities and consider them an added bonus to an already amazing volunteer experience.

If you are a student who is looking for a volunteer position with a reasonable time commitment that will look good on your resume and help you develop skills for working with kids with disabilities, I highly recommend applying to Holland Bloorview.

Previous blog post:
http://fcsstudent.blog.ryerson.ca/2014/01/22/my-volunteer-position-holland-bloorview-kids-rehabilitation-hospital/

Holland Bloorview Volunteer Website:
www.hollandbloorview.ca/volunteer

Photo from: Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Facebook page

Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Wake up.

Shower. Dress.

Have breakfast.

Listen to panel of eminent scholars from across north America and group discussion about ableist investments and crip becomings. Have mind blown.

Break. Quick coffee.

Attend another panel. Watch Ryerson student present her final thesis on Deafness and boundaries. Watch another presenter show clips from TV show, Switched at Birth and discussion of Deaf culture in media.

Lunch and AGM. Listen and participate in an interesting discussion about student (undergrad) attendance and activism. Vote.

Listen and read along with the closed captioned Keynote speech. Quickly scribble notes on books and authors to read. Listen to keynote’s ten year old daughter discuss the racism she has experienced, in terms of, the book about pigs she reading. Once again, have mind blown.

Break. Grab a quick half pint at the beer tent.

Last panel of the day. Discussion about cultural representations of disability all across media. From fan fiction, to Zombie culture, to film and intellectual disability, to writing as disability activism. Get inspired.

Dinner. Discuss ideas for work, future presentations, joke, laugh, create community.

Night cap. Laugh and strengthen friendships over beer and discussions of neoliberalism and intersectionality.

Sleep.

Wake. Repeat.

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The Canadian Disability Studies Association (CDSA) recently had a conference at Brock University as part of the larger Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences program. I am grateful to have been able to attend. Congress is one the main conferences during the year for a variety of scholars, not only disability studies, but anthropology, sociology, social work, Russian languages, history, just to name a few of the 70 different associations. It takes place over a one week period. There are panels several times a day, every day, career workshops, readings, a book expo (it’s a little dangerous, best to go through without your wallet), and a beer tent.

I came away from my experience at Congress, exhausted, motivated, overwhelmed, inspired, excited, tired, with new and strengthen friendships, with an extensive new reading list and with a plan to become more involved with the CDSA. For those who missed the announcement in Ryerson Today, Ryerson University will be hosting Congress in 2017. For students still attending Ryerson then, this is the perfect time to get involved, meet some scholars in your field, make connections, listen to passionate discussions and maybe volunteer. For alumni, come back, support your school and your field of study. Be reminded of your passion and grow your knowledge.

See everyone there! CDSA 2017!

A Message to the Well Intentioned

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I have heard that every moment is a teaching moment. While I want to believe this, I’m not sure it’s true. There seems to be times and places when “teaching moments” can cause undo embarrassment to whomever is being taught. Or perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps I don’t have the ability to teach in every moment. I work as an attendant for three men with multiple disabilities, including speech impairments.  We often encounter well meaning people who unknowingly, and with the best of intentions, respond to us in ways that make us feel uncomfortable. Due to my clients’ speech impairments, I am always the one to verbally respond. While my clients and I have tried to come up with responses to these well meant remarks, there never seems to be a way to comment without embarrassing them or ourselves.

Many times people will see my clients wheelchair, but miss the person. People often politely move out of doorways so we can go through. This is usually prefaced with, “Oh, let the wheelchair through.” This is obviously well meant and some may think that I am making too much of a minor error in language. However, this happens too often for me to assume that it’s just a slip of the tongue.

At busy events, we regularly meet parents who hold their children back from running into us. I have noticed that many parents have a knee jerk reaction to making room for us. To me, it feels like fear.  The grab of the collar, the yank backwards and then the hold till we pass.  Once I overheard a parent tell their child that the person I was with looked that way because he was sick.  Parents, don’t make your children afraid of, or sorry for, someone who is different. We won’t run your children over, we promise. It’s okay for kids to look and ask questions.

It is often assumed that I am my clients mother, sister or staff.  Strangers come up to us and ask me if I am a worker or if the person I am with is my son. Once on the subway, my client and I overheard the father across from us tell his children that we must be brother and sister because we were joking and laughing. While it is true that I am their support worker, the men I work for have friends and it is awkward to have strangers ask about their relationships. Many times we opt to lie and say that I am friend.  This invariably leads to a remark about how compassionate I am, how kind it is of me to take him out, or how I am a saint to do what I do.

I understand this reaction. Disability, especially when people have multiple disabilities, can make people uncomfortable.  Being reminded of ones disability status and its’ fragile nature is not something that people often want to consider. Therefore I must be a saint. Let me be clear, I am no saint. The men I work for are funny, creative, caring people. Men whom any person would want to know and work for, not just saints.

These are just a few of the regular well intentioned interactions we experience. The men I work for have been experiencing this for their entire lives. They usually want to let these comments go. One of my clients indicated to me that this happens all the time; he doesn’t even notice not being noticed anymore. I can’t help but wonder, how these negative interactions and subtle implications must eat away at people. So please, we understand where you are coming from and we know you mean well, but think about what you are going to say.

 

The Precarious Nature of Care Work

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I have been thinking recently about the increase in precarious employment, especially as it pertains to care work. Over the summer I did a leadership course in which my group presented the oppressive nature of precarious care work on workers and the people with disabilities that they support. I haven’t been able to get these facts out of my head and I don’t want to. In fact, I want these facts in your head too. Maybe if everyone realizes the position that most care workers and the people they support are in, maybe something will change.

So, let me start with the personal. I know a woman who works at a sheltered workshop for people labelled with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Don’t know what a sheltered workshop is? Most people don’t, but you have probably purchased items from one. It is a ‘work’ (and I use that term loosely) situation where people with disabilities are shipped to warehouses, they do piece work and they make less than minimum wage. And it’s entirely legal. (Basically, it’s slavery) They are ‘supported’ in this ‘work’ situtation by staff who are overworked and underpaid.

The woman I know who works there is a single parent, she has three kids and a family in her home country that she is supporting. She has two jobs and picks up extra shifts washing dishes at the restaurant below her apartment when she can. She can’t get full time work from any of these employers, even though, she works full time hours. They always give the same reasons, ‘you are scheduled as causal’ (but they call her in every day) or it’s a contract position.

The sheltered workshop where she works is a charity so their tax records are public information. In 2011, they received over 2 million is donations, 68 million in provincial funding and 4 million from the federal government.  The woman in question makes $12 dollars an hour. Her other job is mostly overnights, where she makes minimum wage. She goes from working all night to working all day for pennies!

According to Ontario Human Rights Commission 90% of all paid caregivers and front line staff are women.  According to Statistics Canada anywhere from 50-87% of women of colour (the % varies by age group) are involved in precarious employment, either part time or contract work.  According to the Workers Action Centre, one in three jobs in Ontario is now precarious employment. There is also the stress related issues associated with being a front line staff and the stress of precarious employment. Not to mention the stress of being a parent, of supporting a family in another country, of making your way in a new country!

Caregivers and front line staff are more likely to have higher levels of stress hormones, they tend to have weaker immune system responses to influenza and the flu vaccine (which many front line staff have to have to work and because they are in part time positions they do not have sick time available to them), and so these women have higher levels of long term medical issues.  In fact, 23% of front line staff will experience burn out from the high demand of their jobs (it most cases it is plural) and the stress of low wages.  A related factor to workplace burn out for developmental service workers is workplace setting.  People (again women) who work in community settings rather than sheltered settings experience less burn out.  In one study, 80% of people who felt burn out attributed this to violence in the work setting.  Understandably there is a direct correlation between burn out and quality of care.

We need to change the perception of ‘care’ work. It is not unskilled labour (as if unskilled labour even exists). It is valuable work. The people supported are valuable. The woman who do this work are valuable.

 

Accessibility

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I met a woman the other day who is shooting a short documentary, four minutes on accessibility in Toronto. We talked for half an hour and barely scratched the surface. Accessibility, like disability, is exceptionally varied and hard to always pin down. When she thought about accessibility, she focussed on ramps and wheel chair users. Another woman in the conversation brought up lack of access to housing, employment and treatment of their choice forced on many people experiencing mental health. I thought of elevator buttons.

I work as an attendant for a man who uses a wheel chair who uses alternative and augmentative communication. We often take the subway around the city and get swallowed by the endless levels of elevators with buttons with letters like “m” or “ul” or whole words like ‘mezzanine’ or ‘upper lobby’ but no options for an ‘up’ arrow or a ‘down’ arrow. The man I work for has a communication impairment and while he can physically hit the button he doesn’t always understand which button to push. Hell, neither do I. It wasn’t until I started to work for him that I even learned what a mezzanine is.  (Honestly, I am not actually sure what it is, I just know that it is the ‘up’ button at one of the TTC stations)

It’s pretty obvious that accessibility will benefit all of us. When my hands are full I use the push buttons (if they are turned on or working that is), escalators and elevators are popular with everyone (just look at the lines at the subway in the morning), and closed captioning means I can watch videos on the bus without headphones (and without ticking off other passengers).

Above and beyond just making all of our lives easier, accessibility is about who, we as a society, choose to value. We have a history of devaluing people for whom accessibility is a necessity. What we need to realize that is that there is a chance, a good chance, that accessibility will one day be a necessity for us. We never really consider the ramifications of stairs versus a ramp, or the importance of push buttons, or closed captioning or plain language buttons in elevators until we or someone we know needs them.

In 2011, the WHO and the World Bank release a report stating that the number of disabled people was larger than estimated and growing. There are approximately 1 billion disabled people in the world, that roughly translates to 15% of the population (http://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/factsheet.pdf). With rates of disablement increasing because of age, accidents, war, disease, environmental pollution and a multitude of other sources, how can we continue to keep producing good and services for the mythic non disabled norm, a body many of us will only inhabit temporarily?