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Redefining Ability

If we are serious about creating a resilient future for our province, we must redefine ability.

I have studied, written about, and facilitated workshops on resilience and creative thinking skills. I have also worked at the BC (British Columbia) Coalition of People with Disabilities for more than ten years.

People who apply for disability benefits are required to catalogue all the ways in which they are unable to contribute to society. To be successful in securing financial support, they must itemize all of the areas where they are unsuccessful. By the time many people have completed the application process for benefits, they have lost self-respect and self-esteem. To be worthy of disability benefits means proving that you are unworthy.

Labelled, socially (and sometimes physically) isolated, marginalized and living in poverty, many people with disabilities exist outside of the mainstream of "participating, contributing, valuable members of society."

In my work at the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities, I witness on a daily basis the creativity and resilience of people our society has discarded. When people can survive on meagre disability benefits, manage difficult health issues and/or mental or physical challenges, and volunteer or otherwise contribute to their families and communities, just imagine what they could do if we recognized and acknowledged their abilities.

From my experience with Appreciative Inquiry and creative thinking techniques, I know that the questions we ask determine the answers we find. How DISabled are you? In what ways are you unable to contribute? What if we asked everyone in B.C.: How can you contribute? What will you offer to your neighbour and your community? How can we work together to change the poverty, health inequities, violence and despair that prevent a resilient future? What are your creative solutions to the challenges we all face?

We spend millions of dollars on social and health problems, and yet we don't nurture and enlist the ideas and insights of some of the most creative and resilient among us. When we look at people with disabilities, we dismiss some of the abilities that are so essential in building strong communities--kindness, creativity, humour, persistence, commitment and passion.

Imagine a future B.C. in which everyone is recognized as able in so many ways.

Shelley Hourston is a program director for the AIDS & Disability Action Program and the Wellness & Disability Initiative at the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities (, and welcomes big (and small) ideas for redefining ability.

Reprinted from the Vancouver Sun, February 21, 2009.

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