Up Close

Sarah Jama

"Growing up with Cerebral Palsy, a disability that leaves me reliant on walkers and wheelchairs for mobility, I had seen my fair share of ridiculousness. My Grade 7 teacher once called me a liability and barred me from attending a school trip."

In my last year of high school, I met a kid named George.

He was in Grade 9. We weren't super close, but my interactions with him helped to shape the rest of my trajectory as a community organizer and activist. One of the first things he told me about himself was that he wanted to be an actor someday. In fact, he had always dreamed of attending Etobicoke School of the Arts to hone his craft. When I asked him why he didn't end up applying to that high school, he told me that he refrained from applying, because the school wasn't built to be able to support him.

George was in a wheelchair, and the school didn't have a passenger elevator.

I can't say that I was surprised. Growing up with Cerebral Palsy, a disability that leaves me reliant on walkers and wheelchairs for mobility, I had seen my fair share of ridiculousness. My Grade 7 teacher once called me a liability and barred me from attending a school trip. My Grade 9 teacher once yelled at me for taking notes down in class too slowly. I had constant interactions like these with people I was taught to look up to, and until this point I believed this was the way my life was meant to be. I was a burden to the world, and each day was to be prefaced with the slogan that things could always be worse.

But something about George's story struck me: How could an entire school that was publicly funded, not be built to include people with disabilities?

Somehow, this felt bigger than my individual experiences of ableism. I realized that these experiences were more than just about people and their social attitudes toward people with disabilities, and that ableism was supported by entire institutions and structures in society that were not built for us.

For the first time, I didn't feel the need to stay complacent, to sit tight with the hand I was dealt. I was pissed. I reached out to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) student trustee at my school, and they advised me to give a delegation attend the Special Education Advisory Committee meetings run by the TDSB.

I waited weeks for the next meeting, and prepared to ask this board to advocate for an elevator to be installed at ESA. When I entered the meeting room, which was filled with parents of special needs children, and chaired by TDSB Trustee, Chris Bolton, who laughed in my face. I was bombarded with people in suits asking questions and making statements as though I wasn't in the room.

Who are you?

What gives you the right to speak on this issue?

If the student in question didn't actually apply, we can't do anything.

What are the statistics of people with physical disabilities who would even want to apply to ESA?

I left the meeting with a broken spirit and another revelation. Unless I was someone with a seat at the table, unless I could speak the language of people in positions of power, I would never be able to make change in a world that wasn't built for me. I also learned that because I was a racialized woman with a physical disability, because I was of lower class and had less resources in my repertoire—my access to these sorts of spaces would be reduced tenfold. I realized that to make change, my only option was to try and learn what I could about the societal institutions and systems that continued to isolate those who were deemed to be different, and then use that knowledge to make change outside of the confines of men in suits sitting at tables, making decisions around me instead of with me.

I left high school that year not knowing if an elevator was ever installed at the Etobicoke School of the Arts. However, with this newly ignited fire, I went on to become:

The Ontario Director of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), the first elected Student Representative Assembly Member of the McMaster Students Union with a disability, the author of the McMaster Students Union's first accessibility policy, the founder of Maccess, a campus space created to teach students with disabilities self-advocacy skills, and more.

I also honed my community organizing skills, mobilizing 250 people in Hamilton Ontario to come out to an Anti Racism Action Initiative—a community dialogue about the state of racism in the city. I became an avid disability justice organizer and anti-racism activist, and am continuing to learn the skills needed to shape this world into spaces meant for those not taught to take it.

Sarah Jama is a community organizer and recent graduate. She was the 2016 president of the McMaster Womanists and organized a number of events in Hamilton in relation to racism, such as the Rise Up: Rally against Police Brutality, was a co-organizer of Hamilton's first Anti-Racism Action Initiative. She served a two year term as the Ontario Director of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, and founded the first peer-based and run service for students with disabilities at McMaster University called Maccess. Her interests include but are not limited to, critical disability theory, critical race theory, social justice organizing, and activism. She featured on CBC Radio's The Current discussing disability activism in Canada.

Most recently, Sarah has been named by CBC's as one of Hamilton's top five most interesting people of 2016, because of her city wide advocacy and organizing. She is a recipient of the John C Holland Evleyn Myrie Political Action Award, and is serving a 2 year term on the Hamilton Immigration Partnership Council. She currently works at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, as well as for the office of Councillor Green-- the first black city councilor in Hamilton Ontario.