Conference opens doors for disabled

Accessibility a major goal for conference planners



It was probably the first gathering in Nunavut with guide dogs, wheel chairs, white canes, hearing aids and sign language.

And the conference wasn’t even about people with disabilities.

But organizers of this week’s Future of Work conference hoped to prove that with a little bit of advanced planning, people with disabilities can be full participants in conferences and in the workforce.

At the conference, blind people were given information packages in Braille, audio tapes, or computer disks that could be opened and used on talking computers.

People with hearing disabilities were seated near sign language experts who interpreted the conference for them.

A team of experts took turns signing, and they spoke loudly and clearly to deaf people across northern Canada from a small box in the upper right corner of the television screen.

For those unable to read sign language, open captioning appeared across the bottom of the television sets.

Special efforts made

Efforts were also made to ensure that people in wheelchairs or with other physical difficulties could get to and from the conference and could take part in discussions.

The hotel staff where the disabled people were staying were also told in advance about the special needs of their guests.

In her opening comments, NIC commissioner Meeka Kilabuk explained why organizers tried to get disabled people involved in the conference.

“It is simple ¬ people with disabilities have a contribution to make to our society ¬ and because of their disabilities they have a unique perspective on work and the way in which they must make their way in the world,” Kilabuk said.

Organizers estimate that as many as 5,000 people in Nunavut have disabilities, but there are few services to help them take part in society.

NWT lacks services

“I think what is most remarkable is the inclusion of people with disabilities,” said Lydia Bardak, the executive director of the NWT Council for Disabled Persons.

Bardak said having so many people with a variety of disabilities at the conference helped raise awareness about their needs. She said the high-tech tools and gadgets that help make their lives easier are an added bonus.

“But it’s the people that are here that make the difference,” Bardak says.

She said there are many blind people in the NWT, but only a handful of Braille users. There are also lots of deaf people but few who have learned sign language because there are no teachers here.

Being strong inside

Rosalie Pissuk from Rankin Inlet says there wasn’t enough talk about what disabilities mean.

“There was just a flash of disability,” Pissuk said, who is just learning the basic level of Braille instruction. “There is no Braille teacher in the North except in Yellowknife.”

Pissuk said people see disabilities as “a health problem.”

“But for us, disability is being yourself and being strong inside ¬ not outside,” Pissuk said, adding that more efforts are needed to help disabled people feel comfortable in the workplace.

Ottawa watching

Representatives from the federal government were at the conference to see how well the conference organizers were able to meet the needs of disabled people.

If this conference is deemed a success, Ottawa may adopt the model developed here for other conferences held by government departments across Canada.

“If we can do it in a place as remote as Iqaluit, we should be able to do it across Canada,” said one federal official.

Sharlyn Ayotte, a representative from T-Base Research and Development Inc. in Ottawa had the contract to help make sure disabled people could take part in the conference.

“The vision was to make it as open as possible, to promote dialogue so that people can see that people with disabilities bring a very unique perspective and made a unique contribution,” Ayotte said.

A final report on the conference will be produced in print, Braille, audio tapes, large print, in four languages ¬ English, French, Inuktitut and Inuiaqtun.

“Sharlyn came up with a vision and we came up with the dollars,” said Peter Field from the Public Service Commission of Canada.

Field said that if people design their information packages and conferences at the outset to include access for disabled people, it doesn’t necessarily have to cost more money.

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