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‘It makes me feel like less of a person’: Toronto artist says after being called a cripple

WATCH: Alexei Vella speaks about #FirstTimeIWasCalled

We teach kids “sticks and stones” but names do and can hurt. Just ask Toronto artist Alexei Vella.

READ MORE: #FirstTimeIWasCalled series

The 34-year-old, who is in a wheelchair, has faced barriers his whole life but one of the hardest moments was one incident he experienced several summers ago on Queen Street in Toronto.

Vella was travelling through the busy thoroughfare with his mother when a car drove by and a man rolled down the window and yelled “hey cripple” to Vella.

“I know that person driving by was trying to be hurtful because the way they said it, the tone,” said Vella, adding he is still shaken by the experience.

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“You would think as an adult you wouldn’t say things like that. Even kids don’t say that. … I don’t think they cared about what it would mean or how it would affect me.”

Vella said his mother was also as hurt and angry and while he put on a brave face, the incident stayed with him.

READ MORE: Farah Nasser: My first experience with racism

“I know that very person that called me that, it can easily happen to them where they can get in a car accident, or something happens to you that can shake you from your foundation,” he said.

“[The word] cripple, it’s a word that always upsets me, it makes me feel like less of a person when they use that word.”

Global News anchor Farah Nasser spoke with Vella about this experience, as well as other times he’s faced discrimination as part of #FirstTimeIwasCalled — a series of interviews with Canadians about the first time they experienced discrimination and how that experience affected them.

The #FirstTimeIWasCalled project:

Part 1: Jagmeet Singh

Part 2: Jully Black

Part 3: Farheen Khan

Part 4: Kathleen Wynne

Vella was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy when he was three years old.  He regularly receives assistance through personal care workers and said even those who are trained to help people with disabilities sometimes get it wrong.

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WATCH: Alexei Vella speaks about #FirstTimeIWasCalled 

Alexei Vella speaks about #FirstTimeIWasCalled
Alexei Vella speaks about #FirstTimeIWasCalled

“I’ve had workers who come in and think I’m not smart, my disability affects more than just my body,” he said.

The OCAD graduate is an accomplished graphic artist and has had his work in publications like the Boston Globe, Harvard Business Review and Scientific American. In his downtown apartment, Vella’s degrees are proudly displayed on the wall.

MORE: ‘It’s a traumatic moment’: How everyday racism can impact mental, physical health

“Don’t assume based on someone’s appearance. You don’t know them,” he said.

“That’s how I counter it. I do face it daily.”

Vella believes tolerance begins with kids and has proof that teaching empathy can yield positive results.

In grade school, Vella said he was bullied by classmates because of the extra attention he received from occupational therapists.

“I told my parents and I told my OT, I don’t want to be in the room, but I think someone should talk to the class and say, ‘This is Alexei. He might look like he has special treatment. There is a reason why,'” he said.

“And after they did that, my classmates didn’t bother me. They treated me really well.”

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In fact, these same kids would soon join Vella in high school and protect him from bullies.

“That was the one thing that in my childhood really worked,” he said.

Learn more about #FirstTimeIwasCalled and share your stories using the hashtag #FirstTimeIwasCalled

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