SRSAN: The Strength of Self-Advocacy!

Today, Canada is considered one of the best places to live. It is a country whose identity lies in a mosaic of different cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, and groups. Canadians have come to pride the diversity of our citizens, steadfast in the belief that we are an inclusive nation that embraces differences without reservation.

Sadly, it wasn’t always this way. Canada, like many other countries, once feared those differences. First Nations people, African Canadians, and people with disabilities are all groups that have historically been marginalized with their rights stolen or denied.

While we have come a long way on all fronts, there is still a great distance to travel on the road to understanding, acceptance and equality.

We are proud to say that the South Region Self-Advocacy Network is making significant strides on this journey, breaking barriers as a voice for the rights for people with disabilities.

SRSAN is network of 114 self-advocates and allies across Alberta’s south region, extending from the U.S. border to Nanton and from British Columbia to Saskatchewan. The group, made up of people with and without disabilities, meets five times a year. Discussions can focus on advocacy issues across the province, learning opportunities, community involvement and much more. It is the largest self-advocacy group in Alberta. Membership is open to anyone at an annual fee of $10.

SRSAN is supported by SAIPA, a non-profit whose mission is to “inspire people with disabilities to become engaged and empowered citizens.” Support to SRSAN achieves a large part of this mandate.

SRSAN’s roots date back to 2001, when 38 self-advocates enrolled in the Leadership Today course offered by the Leadership Today Society of Alberta. The course taught people what self-advocacy involves, what it means to be a leader and how to delegate responsibilities. The advocates enjoyed the course immensely and realized their newfound skills could make a real difference. The group decided they would meet regularly to better themselves as self-advocates, and to share the power of self-advocacy with others.

From there, the group decided on its name, a meeting schedule for the year, and a mission and vision.  SRSAN decided its mission was to be “A united voice which promotes equality, opportunities, and inclusion for us by educating the community about our dreams and what we can achieve.”

SAIPA determined it would support the group to carry out its vision and mission, and help them connect with others in the south region. SRSAN decided it wanted to focus on building connections through conferences and community development.

Advocates felt that in order for the group to be successful, the inclusion of support staff was vital.

“Support staff need to believe in this too, to be able to help us,” self-advocates told us.

The SRSAN membership is further broken down into an executive committee that consists of a chair, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer and four directors. Advocates are self-nominated for these positions during SRSAN’s annual election in November.

With these guidelines in place, SRSAN was ready to begin creating change! In 2002, the group held its first conference, titled “Let’s Get Connected.” The first conference at the Lethbridge Lodge was well attended. Advocates told us that holding a conference showed the community what they believed in and gave them the same learning opportunities as anyone else.

Since then, SRSAN has held 10 conferences, each with a different theme based on topics advocates want to learn about. Over the years, the conference’s structure has changed to meet growing interest and demand: the conference was expanded from one day to two, and, in the last seven years, attendance has increased from an average of 50 to 60 people to more than 100, as was the case last year!

While SAIPA supports SRSAN, we encourage members to strive for independence. As such, SRSAN takes ownership of the conference through planning, brainstorming ideas, building community partnerships and fundraising. SRSAN has held several successful fundraisers, including the sales of T-shirts, hoodies, raffle baskets and cookbooks. SRSAN also hosts a car wash fundraiser each July.

These fundraisers have improved the conference exponentially, allowing for improved guest speakers and better opportunities. More importantly, the conference has given self-advocates more confidence to speak publicly and engage in the community.

SRSAN has also furthered disability rights in the community through several advocacy initiatives. One of those initiatives is the annual Citizen Walk About. Beginning in 2009 as the “Walk and Roll for Fun”, the event invites self-advocates and the community to walk from Lethbridge City Hall to Galt Gardens downtown; walkers carry signs with key messages promoting a more inclusive community. Different groups are also invited to speak on why diversity is important. Last year, 75 people participated with several media on-site providing coverage. This proves that the community is taking notice, raising key awareness about the value of people with disabilities.

The group has a strong presence as part of several local committees, projects and initiatives. Advocates sit on the Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination (CMARD). This is a UNESCO Committee of which our city became a member in 2007. The local group works to end racism and discrimination in Lethbridge, and advocates have played a key role in organizing several successful events. SRSAN was also involved in the city’s Beyond Your Front Door initiative, designed to create welcoming and inclusive neighbourhoods by encouraging residents to get to know their neighbours and people within the community.

Other notable achievements include helping to plan the International Day of Persons with Disabilities as well as the Pangaea Diversity Café. This is an event where people of different cultures, backgrounds and circumstances can relax, have a bite to eat and have a conversation with others in the community. This simple act provides education, awareness and understanding of who makes up our city and that we all have something of value to contribute.

SRSAN has also made its mark provincially in several ways. Representatives from SRSAN sit on various provincial committees including Albertans Advocating for Change Together (AACT) and the The PDD Self-Advocacy Advisory Committee to have a voice in policy decisions that affect people with disabilities. Self-advocates also regularly engage in letter-writing campaigns to the government to share concerns and offer suggestions. This occurred most recently over concerns about PDD Safety Standards. In letters to then Minister Heather Klimchuk, advocates discussed their rights, their questions and offered solutions. Advocates also met with MLAs in the south region to discuss the safety standards. SRSAN has also had a strong presence at focus groups and roundtables with various officials.

In 2012, SRSAN developed a federal and provincial plain language voters guide “so everyone can be informed about voting and have an opportunity,” said self-advocates.

What is perhaps most amazing about SRSAN is how self-advocates bond and come together in times of hardship. SRSAN has had its share of adversity in the past 15 years; in 2004, SRSAN’s first chairperson, Clarence Marsh, passed away suddenly. Advocates describe Clarence as “a leader and a friend who cared about people and believed that all people mattered.”

The loss was devastating for SRSAN, and regrouping wasn’t easy.

“It wasn’t easy, it took a lot of patience,” said self-advocates. “We never did this alone, we worked through this together. This is why SRSAN still exists.”

Out of tragedy came something special: in 2005, SRSAN created the Clarence Marsh Memorial Award to honour their friend and recognize self-advocates making a difference. This award is given annually; this year, the group will award its 11th self-advocate!

Other hurdles the group has overcome include changes to PDD funding, staff changes at SAIPA bringing new ideas for SRSAN, and the death of another close friend and advocate, Kent Pederson. Advocates say Kent always made people laugh and smile.

“We continue to work together through these difficult times as a group, never on our own,” say self-advocates. “We look to each other for support. We will set up support groups where we can support each other through difficult times.”

SRSAN has also had the strength and courage to revamp its advocacy program several times. Taking part in retreats throughout the years to reflect on goals and accomplishments, SRSAN returns renewed, refreshed and ready to work! This year, SRSAN decided it was time to change things once again; the group is in the process of rebuilding their structure, vision and purpose.

“We need to change to keep up with what’s going on,” say self-advocates. “We want to know what our members need from SRSAN. We can’t grow if we don’t change.”

When asked what people with disabilities can learn from SRSAN, two words stood out:

“We matter.”

SRSAN is proof that people with disabilities not only matter, but they have the power to make real change on a large scale, influencing attitudes and communities. SAIPA is proud to support these incredible individuals!

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