by Naomi sayers

 In April 2002, I was in a car accident, while walking or attempting to walk on the highway just in front of my house, located on Garden River First Nation. Garden River First Nation runs along the eastern shores of St. Marys River, on the east side of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. The highway that runs through my community is known as the Trans-Canada Highway, whiruns through all ten provinces, from the Atlantic Ocean (east coast) to the Pacific Ocean (west coast). I am not the first young person to be hit by a car on the highway. I am one of few who survived. With that survival, however, I have learned a great deal about the troubling ways in which systems and institutions—and the people within those systems and institutions—alleged their accessibility policies as welcoming toward individuals with disabilities and complex histories, individuals like me.

You cannot see my disability. There is nothing that exists outside of my body that signals to others that I sometimes require additional support in ways that are, sometimes, hard to articulate for me. This is not to say that people who do have those items that you can see are any different or less than me, or even you. This is to highlight my own experiences with learning to live with a newly acquired disability following my car accident, the lessons I learned about (in)accessibility, and what disability justice means for me.

Immediately following the car accident, I spent approximately one month in the hospital. I spent a few days in Sault Ste Marie’s General Hospital, in the psychiatric wing, where my mother had to take care of me. I don’t know why I was placed in the psychiatric wing. While in that unit, I was in and out of consciousness and I was having seizures. I was also urinating the bed since I was in and out of consciousness and the hospital refused to move me to specialized care. Finally, the hospital transferred me to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and eventually, transferred me to a hospital in Sudbury, which is about three hours east from Sault Ste Marie. For about a week, I was in a coma and I was on a breathing ventilator. I spent about another couple of weeks in a special unit for people recovering after acquiring a brain injury. After being discharged, I recall being told that the accident caused my brain to swell, bleed and that I had “water on the brain.” I also had a skull fracture, but during the transfer from the psychiatric wing to the ICU, the hospital caused another skull fracture after hospital equipment fell on my head. So, during the time I was in the psychiatric wing, I had these internal injuries which the hospital refused to adequately provide proper care, forcing my mom to take care of me instead.

The months following my discharge from the hospital, I experienced double vision, daily headaches, drowsiness, ringing in the ears and oral injuries (i.e., loss of a frontal tooth which required specialized care). Over time, however, I realized how the brain injury would impact my relationships with other people including my family, impact my schooling, and impact my ability to work as a young person. I also have other long term injuries like vision, hearing, concentration and attention issues. The ringing in my ears has not gone away.

I returned to school expecting to graduate in another year from my friends. I soon realized, however, that I had to make new friends. The brain injury changed who I was as a person and I could not do the things that I used to do with my friends—even simple things like going to the movies or to the annual fair and get on some of the rides! Some of these friends eventually stopped inviting me out to do things I used to do with them. Specifically, at school, I had to undergo special testing to determine what kind of supports I needed to be successful in completing my high school graduation. I went through much of this testing before and I eventually learned the majority of the testing dealt with occupational therapy (or ways to find out what a person needs help with at school, at work, and at home following an injury, in my experience, of some sort). Some of the supports I required include breaks after sitting for long periods of time, assistance with taking notes (i.e., recording lectures), and other assistive devices like electronic calendars with alarms to help me remember due dates and appointments.

During my return to school, I also wanted to return to work. While attending high school full-time, I also wanted to work a part-time job. I did not know how difficult working part-time while attending high school full-time would be until I moved away from home.

I moved away from home after realizing how my brain injury would impact my relationships with my family. Sometimes brain injuries cause people to have angry bursts, at the seemingly smallest things. I was one of those people. I was also one of those people that experienced problems with recalling words. I do experience some problems with word recall but I have developed some techniques for myself to overcome this side effect, as well as the angry outbursts. Unfortunately, it was not until our community police removed me from the family home after I fought my family members that I realized my angry outbursts affected my relationship with them.

The police removed me from my home. They told me I could not come back unless the police were present and only to grab clothes. I was only 17 years-old and at the moment, I moved out. I moved into a house with four other young adults. They were in university and I was still in high school. To help pay for rent, I realized I had to work several part-time jobs. I struggled to keep some jobs for longer periods over others. For instance, I was not the best waitress in an Italian restaurant. I could not remember orders and I could not pronounce most of the plates. After spending a year struggling through a few jobs, I eventually turned 18 and discovered the world of escorting.

Escorting is not for everyone. Sometimes, people refer to escorting as sex work. However, sex work is an umbrella term which refers to many different kinds of people who sell or trade sexual labour. Sex work includes web-caming, phone sex, and stripping. I started with escorting.

Being a young Indigenous woman, living and working in northern Ontario, the job possibilities were and continue to be very limiting. At the time, there were options to work in call centres (which require long sitting periods) or retail (which require standing for long periods). Earlier on, I had trouble doing both. For me, escorting provided a new way to achieve my educational goals: To eventually attend post-secondary education (something that seemed very out of reach at the time).

While I left escorting and entered into other forms of sex work (stripping), I did make it to law school and I am currently in my final term, expected to graduate in May 2017. I can confidently say that sex work helped with my journey. But, my journey to this point has not been easy and barriers have been put in front of me, every step of the way.

I learned that when it comes to (in)accessibility policies within systems and institutions (i.e., education), these policies presume that people with disabilities (in this case students) lie about the extent of their disability, and if they are believed, only receive help  when they communicate their needs (i.e.,the policies presume adequate and competent communication skills). On the former, this is a dangerous assumption because it believes only certain bodies and experiences as normal. And, on the latter, it presumes that students will communicate everything they need in one in-take appointment and that those needs will not change throughout their schooling experience. It also presumes the entire process to acquire accommodations through (in)accessibility policies is neither intimidating nor labour-intensive (i.e., requiring a lot of time and energy on top of everything else, like part-time jobs and/or full-time schooling). These processes are nothing but intimidating and labour-intensive.

For each new institution I attended, I had to learn about their (in)accessibility policies and corresponding process for accessing accommodations. I had to do this while living away from home and with very little support from friends and only the support provided by family when I lived closer to home.

When I think back to these educational experiences, I realize that these (in)accessibility policies erase the way in which systems and institutions either aggravate or exacerbate manifest or latent disabilities. For example, the racist and colonial approaches to teaching law in many law schools across Canada sometimes aggravate such disabilities.

During my third year of law school, I almost filed a human rights complaint against my law school but I missed the deadline by one month and I missed the deadline because of the school’s delay in releasing a decision to me, for my review (I challenged a professor’s comments in class that there existed only two kinds of law, which ignored Indigenous law and I was treated horribly by another professor who I sought help with these comments). This incident began in my second year. So, I spent over twelve months advocating on behalf of myself, as well as studying full time courses. However, during the time I experienced this discrimination, my anxiety was further exacerbated and I missed classes and some assignment dates. The process to challenge these comments and treatment by professors, and to receive accommodation also compounded my anxiety.

What I learned from living with a disability is that I am my own best advocate. Nevertheless, this should not be the case. If systems and institutions paid attention to the dangerous assumptions within their (in)accessibility policies, they would understand that people with disabilities do not lie about the extent of their experiences. The process set up by these policies may also be intimidating and people who participate in the processes may not be given the tools, time, and space to communicate their needs. For law school, in particular, I am always taught the importance to always practice self-reflexivity. However, it is important that these systems and institutions also do the same. The burdens placed on people with disabilities through policies and process create inaccessible spaces, as opposed to accessible spaces. Disability justice, for me, is then having the space, time, and tools available for me to communicate my needs in a way that ensures I am heard and my experiences validated. Disability justice is that simple, if only everyone else listened.

Naomi Sayers

Naomi Sayers

Naomi Sayers is a fierce Indigenous feminist, influencer, writer, and educator. She is passionate about working with Indigenous communities or organizations with an Indigenous focus. With her life experiences, Naomi enjoys inspiring others to make the change possible in their world. She is a co-creator of Between The Lines (www.btllaw21.com), a public legal education initiative, and she was named an Every Day Political Citizen by Samara Canada. Naomi is the Kwe behind Kwe Today (www.kwetoday.com). Kwe Today is a blog that is regularly cited around the world. Her work is also used by national and international organizations to influence policy and law reform.