'I'll break the barriers': New ad campaign tries to end stigma plaguing youth with disabilities

A new ad campaign will attempt to change the way people view children with disabilities, by describing their pictures as future athletes, scholars and storytellers.

Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital launches Dear Everybody campaign

Liam Cosgrove, 15, is one of the faces of Dear Everybody, a new ad campaign that will be seen this week at the Toronto Eaton Centre, and will be promoted through radio, TV and bus shelter advertisements. (John Grierson/CBC)

Dressed in a crisp white button-down shirt, red vest and black bow tie, Liam Cosgrove, 15, stood in Toronto's Eaton Centre Monday to help end the stigma against kids with disabilities.

"To me it's very, very tough. Some people might say: 'Oh he's autistic, he can't be a history teacher,'" Cosgrove said. "But guess what, I can do all those things."

He's one of the faces of a new ad campaign — Dear Everybody — by Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, aimed at changing the way people look at children with disabilities, by describing their pictures as future athletes, scholars and storytellers.

Cosgrove stood alongside members of the campaign at the mall Monday, where they will be stationed all week, urging passersby to ask questions and make conversation.

Liam Cosgrove stood in Toronto's Eaton Centre Monday beside an campaign ad with his photograph, which says: This is what a scholar looks like. (John Grierson/CBC)

"You're going to be seeing young people who are telling you in their own words, with their own images, what they're about," said Julia Hanigsberg, president and CEO of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

So who is Liam?

He's a war history buff who's going into Grade 10 and dreams of one day becoming a scholar and history teacher and meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"I'll push the barriers. I'll break the barriers, like a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier," he said.

Youth with disabilities report having 0 to 1 close friends

Hanigsberg said the campaign is all about seeing the person instead of the disability.

With this message, she hopes to start reversing the startling statistics gathered by the hospital, which indicate the majority of young people with disabilities report having between zero to one friends.

But Hanigsberg said friendships aren't the only issue — 25 per cent of children under 15 with a disability in Canada have unmet educational needs, and one in three children report being denied a job because of their disability.

Julia Hanigsberg, president and CEO of Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, encourages people to 'be aware of the obstacles that young people face.' (John Grierson/CBC)

"That's not because they lack the skills or the abilities to be employed, it's because of prejudice and bias, and frankly also ignorance," she said.

Hanigsberg said there are social policy issues that need to be addressed concerning employment and education, but there are also small changes. Parents and teachers can change the lives of these children. 

"These things can start with one person — the mom who makes her birthday party accessible to every kid in the class," she said. 

Liam's mom, Susan Cosgrove, is one of those parents taking the extra step.

She stood by her son Monday, encouraging him as he spoke of his love of history.

Susan Cosgrove, Liam's mom, stood beaming at her son, and spent the day with him helping with the campaign. (John Grierson/CBC)

"It's hard," Susan Cosgrove said. "As a mom, I think I put so much time and effort and work into setting up a world and an environment and a life where they have as little barriers as possible."

Barriers she said are felt when people publicly stigmatize her son.

"They don't assume that he is somebody who has a life of accomplishment ahead of him," she said. "It's very offensive."

'I'm just like anyone else' 

But for Casey MacKay, it's the subtle ways people talk to him that he finds the hardest to endure.

"I've experienced a lot of stigma in my life. People staring at me, people making assumptions, people talking to my parents instead of talking directly to me," he said.

MacKay, 22, was a patient recovering from a leg surgery in 2014 at Holland Bloorview when he was asked to be a youth ambassador for the hospital's foundation.

Casey MacKay, 22, said it's important for people to understand that he is able to answer a question and said he wants to be spoken to directly instead of through his friends or parents. (John Grierson/CBC)

"It's really important for people to understand that I'm just like anyone else," he said.

MacKay said although being talked down to and underestimated has actually made him stronger, these ads are an important way of correcting people's assumptions. 

"Casey is a broadcaster that can achieve anything. I want to start out being an editor, and eventually be an on-air reporter," he said.

With files from Nick Boisvert