TORONTO – Like any typical teen, Jadine Baldwin loves spending time on her cellphone and laptop, the latter the vehicle for honing her skills as a wordsmith to fulfil her dream of some day becoming a novelist.
But what sets the 17-year-old apart from most of her adolescent peers is her physical disability, the result of being born with cerebral palsy.
And while she has no intention of letting that stop her from reaching her goal, she continually bumps up against the barrier of discrimination – the stares, the whispers and the social exclusion by those seemingly unable to see past her inability to walk or her somewhat laboured speech.
“I think people discriminate against me in the way that they see my wheelchair and not who I am as a person,” said Jadine.
“They’ll talk to other people about me, but not directly to me. So people will stop my mom in the grocery store and ask her what my problem is … because they think that because my legs don’t work I’m stupid and can’t understand them.
“Then my mom’s always like, ‘Why don’t you ask her?’ And then as soon as I start talking, you see the look on their faces. It’s like they’re shocked. They don’t know what to do because they think I don’t have a brain.”
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Jadine is part of a new campaign by Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, called “Dear Everybody,” aimed at ending stigma experienced by the estimated 400,000 Canadian children and youth with physical or cognitive disabilities and breaking down the barriers that lead to discrimination.
“It’s a campaign that’s not only designed to change hearts and minds, but also to inspire action, to get people to think differently about the lives of people with disabilities,” said Julia Hanigsberg, president and CEO of Holland Bloorview.
The campaign includes TV and radio ads, as well as a website – www.DearEverybody.ca – that features an open letter written by kids and young adults with disabilities that answers questions and brings Canadians “face to face with their own biases.”
The website provides information and resources, including recommendations for teachers, employers and health-care providers, intended to end the stigma that can severely affect these young people’s lives.
Hanigsberg said youth with disabilities are less likely to pursue post-secondary education, are vastly underemployed compared to their typically developing friends, and have fewer opportunities for social inclusion.
“One of the most startling statistics that I have ever heard is that more 50 per cent of young people with disabilities have zero or one friend.
“Young people who are intelligent and dynamic and have a ton to say tell me that they’re spending every day at the school cafeteria sitting by themselves because no one wants to sit next to them.
“That’s the day-to-day life impact of stigma.”
Maddy Hearne knows all too well what it feels like to be unable to keep up with her friends and classmates after suffering six concussions over the last four years, half of them occurring while the diminutive teen was taking dance classes.
The traumatic injury requires resting the brain as much as possible to help it heal, in part by reducing exposure to stimuli like loud noise and bright light.
“I had to wear headphones and sunglasses, and because of that people stared at me and they saw I had a bunch of accommodations (from the school) and they’re like ‘She’s crazy. Like I don’t want to be a part of that.”‘
At lunchtime, she was put in a quiet room as prescribed by her doctor. “No one else was allowed in the room. I couldn’t eat in the room, I just had to sit there,” Maddy explained.
“The room was a glass room and I always call it the goldfish room, the goldfish aquarium, because everybody would stare at me. I felt like a zoo animal.
“I’d sit there and watch my friends go by.”
The Toronto teen said she’s lost a lot of friends as a result of her concussions, which cause symptoms like fatigue that don’t allow her to be as active as she once was. She previously spent dozens of hours a week practising and performing ballet and other forms of dance.
Maddy said some friends don’t understand that she has good days when she functions well and bad days when she doesn’t – and that’s just the nature of concussion.
“They only want to see you when you’re 100 per cent and at your best,” she said. “So they’re like ‘I don’t want to hang out with Maddy because she can’t do this stuff.’
“It’s a very hard, unhappy feeling. A lonely feeling.”
Maddy, who is also taking part in Holland Bloorview’s anti-discrimination campaign, believes it will help educate Canadians, providing them with the “right information” about disabilities due to congenital birth defects, disease or accidental trauma.
“I think this campaign is going to help kids who are disabled and kids who do have injuries to feel more comfortable and that society shouldn’t look down on them.”
For Jadine, education comes naturally: “I take the time to sit people down a lot and explain to them my disability. It’s better that I explain it to them than them making assumptions about me that are not true.”
The Georgetown, Ont., teen knows the pain of feeling like a pariah – sitting alone at lunch at school and hearing people talking about her behind her back.
“And some people have literally asked me why I’m even here because as they say I’m such a waste of space and I’m an alien and shouldn’t be here.
“I’m no less of a person than anybody else,” countered Jadine. “We as individuals with disabilities can do and be anything we want to be.
“We have passion and drive and we’re willing to reach our full potential, despite what anybody else thinks about us.”