UNITI is not only about including people with disabilities in decision-making but giving them a leading role and building the skills for them to be able to “participate in system level and policy level changes and direct the organization.” One of UNITI’s biggest initiatives, funded through a research grant from Vancouver Foundation, enabled it to put this perspective into action in addressing the needs of youth with disabilities (YDD).
Youth with disabilities at the helm of research on creating inclusive communities
Partnering with CitySpaces, a development consultant, UNITI organized a steering committee made up of youth with disabilities and business and community leaders to bridge the gap between YDD and the greater community. Currently, YDD face barriers in accessing recreation programs, employment, and other activities. On the community side, Glennie says there is plenty of interest from business owners and municipalities in creating this access but uncertainty around how to implement the identified support in a holistic way. Then there is the additional inability for the greater community to find a solution without first being aware of the problem.
With youth leading the way, the steering committee was an opportunity to bring multiple groups into the same space to have these conversations and build relationships. Youth were able to vocalize how they would like greater involvement in the community and the steering committee as a whole was able to utilize the assets of having multiple perspectives at the table.
CitySpaces gave the steering committee the practical tools to effectively undertake solutions-driven research on accessibility through community conversations and surveys. Youth were able to shape the research by coming up with the questions being asked, examine why they were important, and how to phrase them in a way that uses plain language. The youth, along with others on the steering committee and within the organization, were also given support in developing timelines, and literacy with different types of software. They were also taught how to interpret the data they were collecting.
The goal of this research project was to define where the friction in creating inclusive communities came from, deepen relationships between YDD and the broader community, and translate concerns of both into tangible action items. With these items seeing significant progress, Glennie says UNITI has started taking the next step of creating a strategic plan to put these action items into motion. Glennie explains the strategic plan addresses what UNITI is doing to raise awareness around YDDs’ desires to be included in the community in a bigger way along with educating businesses about the steps they can take to make this a reality.
Connections and relationships are critical to inclusion
For Glennie, one of the most rewarding aspects of the project — what she calls the celebrations — was being able to bring different people together to collaborate and deepen community relationships. “Relationships, for UNITI, are critical,” says Glennie. She explains their team is looking for partnerships, such as with the Surrey Board of Trade, TEDx, and others, to help open opportunities for people with disabilities. In turn, UNITI also looks for lesser-known organizations and groups it can help pull up. It currently supports organizations such as the Self-Advocates of Semiahmoo which have achieved wins like helping the City of White Rock and the City of Surrey install beach wheelchairs and wheelchair access points.
The work UNITI does is “normalizing that we’re all part of the community.” This means figuring out a way for everyone to have equitable access to all the connections and opportunities being part of a community should offer. When services are integrated and youth with disabilities are included in the design of community spaces, the whole community benefits from getting to know its people and different perspectives.