On December 2nd 2015, I was honoured to be presented with the City of Toronto’s 2015 Access Award for Disability Issues for my work creating and leading Building Roads Together. It was an extra special honour to receive it on the eve of The International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), and just days before International Human Rights Day, when the UN will launch the “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always”campaign. My life’s work emerges from the nexus of rights, freedom, and mental health.
The theme for IDPD 2015, “Inclusion matters: access and empowerment for people of all abilities,” resonates strongly with the core principle and goal of Building Roads Together to increase inclusion of people living at the intersections of exclusion.
If you want to join us in increasing inclusion, listen to those of us who live at the intersections of exclusions. I mean really listen – without dismissing, diminishing, debating, defending. Hear our words and pause to consider them. Try to understand how our words express our unique contexts and experiences – our unique lives. Give our words space to live and breathe in a world where we are so often silenced, where our words are so often erased. Value the insight we have gained from our daily experiences. If you are committed to inclusion, start by including our words. That is the first step to including our lived experience, and including our lives.
These are the words I shared at the Access, Equity, and Human Rights Awards Ceremony:
“This award means so much to me, I’m speechless. Well, almost speechless. I do have a speech for you. The Access Award means so much to me for three key reasons.
First, Building Roads Together, the community-based peer walking and rolling group program I designed to promote inclusion and reduce mental health inequities, comes from my lived experience of trauma and recovery.
On July 31, 2009, my cherished friend and colleague Josh Fattal was taken hostage by the Iranian regime. My heart stopped. I needed movement to keep it beating, yet it felt impossible to move forward. We were captive with him, in a state of suspended animation, holding our breath, until he was freed. Movement was the only way out of our entrapment.
Josh told me, after he was freed, that one of the lessons he had learned from his hostage experience was, “Exercise is the key to life.” Yet I struggled even to walk during my recovery, because of my PTSD symptoms. This experience grew into Building Roads Together.
The second reason I so value this award is that building something valued by my peers, who share my lived experience of exclusion, loss of freedom, and mental health issues, means the world to me. I’ve now trained more than 40 people living in community housing in Regent Park, with City of Toronto Community Recreation grant funding. Thank you for that. Multiple groups and inspiring leaders have emerged from that training. These words of wisdom from a peer walking group leader express the essence of the program and inspired our name:
“It’s not about showing people the path and then them following you. It’s walking along the path with them. Sometimes you will follow them, and other times they will follow you. It’s building roads together.”
I’m beyond moved that a growing number of people and organizations across the city and country want to be part of Building Roads. A team of professors in Japan even wants to collaborate to bring it to community housing there that is being revitalized.
Finally, recognition from the City of Toronto is more than I ever imagined possible. Of course I didn’t get here alone. I want to thank the following people and organizations for building this road with me:
- my Mt. Sinai peer support group
- Partners and collaborators including: the Centre for Social Innovation; TD Centre of Learning; Regent Park Community Health Centre; ELLICSR Health, Wellness & Cancer Survivorship Centre, University Health Network; and the Canadian Centre on Disability Studies
- Funders including: the City of Toronto; Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto; Toronto Public Health; and the Wellesley Institute.
- my new colleagues at Family Service Toronto
- most of all, my peers with lived experience of exclusion, loss of freedom, and mental health issues
- And finally, my family, friends, colleagues, and all of you for being here to celebrate increasing inclusion, and reducing mental health inequities with me.