Why I took my favorite charity to the Human Rights Tribunal

In September 2014, I took the British Columbia Lions Society for Children with Disabilities to the BC Human Rights Tribunal on the grounds of disability discrimination. I chose to seek legal action after internally voicing my concerns regarding the hiring processes of their summer camps, BC Easter Seals Camps that grossly favour able-bodied applicants. In their reply, the Society dismissed my concerns in their entirety, stating that as they have employed disabled people in the past, including myself, their track record negates the need for any official equal opportunity hiring policies. The Society seems to use its previous employment of the disabled as justification to discriminate against them. Their vehement aversion of designating themselves as an equal opportunity employer magnifies the way in which their prior employment of the disabled is merely an anomaly, and counter to their actual belief that people with disabilities are utterly incapable. Moreover, it is antithetical of an organization that aims to empower the disabled community to actively exclude members of that same community.         

After my successful employment with the Society in the summer of 2013 they gave me a positive appraisal that welcomed my return in any capacity. Upon reapplying for the 2014 hiring season at Camp Squamish, I was told during my interview that the way I advocate for myself because of my disability is too blunt for their liking and jeopardizes my ability to contribute as a member of a team. While I am of the opinion that advocacy must be relentless to be successful, I will never forget these words. They illustrate that it was how I choose to live my life with my disability that was the sole reason why I was not rehired. This criticism was in direct response to my queries concerning why my prospective personal support worker (PSW) had been interviewed before me and without my knowledge. The sole responsibility of my PSWs is to assist me in my toileting or “personal care” needs, while I am responsible for fulfilling all facets of my position, including the one I was interviewed for. Interviewing my PSW at all was an unethical departure from prior protocol. Normally, I work for an employer and my PSWs work for me. Typically, an employer would only speak with my PSWs after I have been offered a job. In this case, not only was I denied a return counselling position, but my PSW, whom I had introduced to the employer, and who was inexperienced as a camp counsellor, was offered a position in my place. Speaking up for my rights was actively held against me.          

I live with a degenerative neuromuscular disorder, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy that requires me to use a power wheelchair. As my disability has progressed I’ve lost complete mobility in my limbs and my voice is my sole means of communicating and advocating for my needs. This fact is often overlooked by able-bodied people who commonly perceive my assertive style of communication as unnecessarily abrasive, even though it is my only means of being heard.

Since the 1970s, the Society has operated three summer camps: Camp Shawnigan, Camp Squamish, and Camp Winfield that provide overnight summer camping experiences to 600 children across British Columbia. They were my favorite charity because they cultivated a space where I could be myself and felt valued. However, I eventually discovered that they believe empowering people with disabilities only occurs in the vacuum of their camping environment, where real world goals of employment are deemed unrealistic and too much to ask for.       

Prior to being accepted to work at Camp Shawnigan in 2013, I attended Camp Squamish as a child for many years and volunteered there for several more. In 2012, I co-founded the fundraising campaign Easter Seals on Wheels and participated in three consecutive 24-hour relays to raise $12,000 to send six children to camp. I am saddened that the children who told me that they would love to work there will also face barriers towards employment with the Society, as long as they continue questioning the integrity and capabilities of persons with disabilities.

The Society trains their staff to be more empathetic by having them partake in mandatory empathy exercises of using a wheelchair, not speaking, and wearing blindfolds. However, these exercises do not give able-bodied employees license to determine what is best for the entire disabled community. A community is best served by its own members, and excluding staff with disabilities deprives camp participants of much needed disabled role models and mentors who are not afraid to advocate for their wants and needs.  

Due to a large staff turnover every year, the Society regularly appoints camp coordinators who have minimal experience working with people with disabilities, let alone any experience employing them. They have admitted to routinely interviewing disabled applicants whom they had no intention of ever hiring. They view their duty to accommodate as requiring too much effort, even though there is no undue hardship in doing so. Despite being employed in the summer of 2013 at Camp Shawnigan, the entirely different coordinating team at Camp Squamish in 2014 viewed employing me as needless extra work. They spun their decision as being based on my abrasive self-advocacy, that was directly associated with advocating for my rights as an applicant and for questioning their ableist hiring practices.

The Society ostracises anyone who critiques their stagnant values and policies. Their silencing of my differently abled voice, through their criticisms of my persistent self-advocacy, is inextricably tied to the way disabled bodies are continually regarded as apolitical and lacking of individual autonomy. Attempting to speak for so many of the disabled for so long has made the Society ignorant of many of that community’s real-life concerns, particularly pertaining to employment, and, most importantly, to each member’s desire for personal agency.                    

Regardless of the Society’s opinion on employee engagement with self-advocacy, what I still find most perplexing is why an organization that claims to serve the disabled community is so against officially implementing and enforcing equal opportunity hiring policies. This is a direct consequence of the severely antiquated charitable model of disability that the Society operates on, which is decades outdated. Their mandate of “giving children abilities” is hinged on the ableist and insensitive premise that people with disabilities (myself included) lack any abilities of our own and that we are helpless and deserving of pity. The Society also continues to run its annual Timmy’s Christmas Telethon, hosted by Shaw TV Vancouver, piggybacking off of the classic pity characterization of Timothy “Tiny Tim” Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel A Christmas Carol. Every year, the telethon casts a disabled child as the latest “Timmy”, relying on pitiful insensitivity to elicit donations. This representation of people with disabilities is harmful and an asset to the Society would be an employee who recognizes this fact.           

I recommend that the Society swiftly re-evaluate their ableist hiring practices and values and look to their partnered organizations, Easter Seals Alberta and Easter Seals Ontario, who have both successfully implemented equal opportunity hiring policies. They evidently understand that empowering people with disabilities also encompasses employment, and that anything less is counterproductive and hypocritical.

Employment opportunities alone cannot solve many of the inequalities that disabled people face in their quest to become equal participants in society. But employment at least helps put them on a path towards a level playing field. The Society would much rather exclude applicants with disabilities than spend time and energy reconfiguring their own ableist organization. Fervent unwillingness to re-evaluate their hiring practices remains the Society’s biggest barrier to inclusion.             

While I could not prove that I was explicitly discriminated against and my human rights complaint was eventually denied, I was without question implicitly discriminated against. I took my favourite charity to the Human Rights Tribunal to hold them accountable to their alleged commitment to bettering the disabled community. Sadly, the only change that the Society has implemented as a result of this case is to no longer offer any of their seasonal camp employees year-end evaluations. This severely hinders each individual’s ability to improve and learn. The Society’s actions imply that employing people with disabilities is a constant failure because they may try to advocate for themselves and restructure a discriminatory organization. Clearly, their track record demonstrates that this perceived failure is purely a result of the Society’s own closed-mindedness and ableist thinking.
This case is just one example of discrimination that often goes unchallenged. Organizations that intend to alleviate the plight of marginalized groups often become so fixated on their own visibility that they start to forget their mission entirely, which only leads to hurting the people they meant to help most. Ardent advocacy and speaking out is crucial to progress and the promotion of change.

@lukegalvani is a disability rights advocate attending Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communications.

Special thanks to my resident editor Kent Cadogan Loftsgard, The Talon editing team, all of my instructors at SFU for their encouragement, and those who have given me their unwavering support since day one.