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Meet Senator

Pana Merchant

The Hon. Pana  Merchant, B.A. Appointed to the Senate by the Rt. Honourable Jean Chrétien, Senator Pana Merchant represents the province of Saskatchewan and the Senatorial Division of Saskatchewan. She has served in the Senate of Canada since December 12, 2002.

Level the Playing Field

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Published by Senator Mobina Jaffer on 10 July 2012

In June, I spoke in the Senate regarding our Human Rights committee’s most recent report — Level the playing field: A natural progression from playground to podium for Canadians with disabilities.

The report concludes our committee’s study on how the government can improve access to physical activities and sport for persons with disabilities. It addresses Active Living for Persons with Disabilities and Human Rights, Health and Human Rights, Barriers to Participation, and Athletic Development in Canada.

Between February and October of last year, our committee met with government representatives, organizations that promote the rights of persons with disabilities, paralympians, UN representatives, and other concerned citizens.

We heard about the many additional barriers to participation in sport for Canadians with disabilities, including costs for specialized equipment and transportation, the lack of specialized coaches, and limited information regarding existing sport opportunities. We discussed the kinds of initiatives and proposals that would help to ensure that all Canadians—regardless of disability, gender, culture, or ethnic origin—have the opportunity to enjoy a healthy, happy lifestyle.

In 2010, Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In doing so, our Government committed to Canadians and to the world that it would protect the rights of persons with disabilities to participate in sport, recreational, and leisure activities.

There are 4.4 million Canadians with disabilities. Some studies report that as low as 3% of these individuals participate in regular organized physical activity.

Our committee heard from a young athlete, Christina Judd- Campbell, during our hearings. Ms. Judd-Campbell shared her story with our committee. She said:

For many years I really struggled. Outside my brothers and sisters, I did not really have any friends, and I had not found anything I liked or was good at. However, my life changed when I joined Special Olympics rhythmic gymnastics. . . . My successes in rhythmic gymnastics showed me if I worked hard, I could become very good at something. I became more confident and proud of myself. I now lead a very busy and full life. I train for rhythmic gymnastics almost every day. I have a part-time job at Staples, which is a few blocks from here. Monday to Friday mornings, I am at Algonquin College in a special program. About once a month, I give a speech or demonstration about Special Olympics. I have many friends that I see regularly, and I also take riding lessons and take care of my three horses.

Christina’s story shows the fundamental importance of physical activity in a child’s life. “My life changed,” she told us. Her physical, mental and social well-being dramatically improved.

There is much work to do. I encourage you to read our committee’s thirteen recommendations, found on page 5 of the report, and to share them with your family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and political representatives. Almost every Canadian knows and loves someone living with a disability—we need to do more, together, to ensure that they have the same rights and opportunities that we enjoy and often take for granted.

Despite the work that still needs to be done, there is good news to share too. A “quick Paralympic moment,” in the words of Paralympian Colette Bourgonje:

My last Paralympics was in Vancouver, and I am still on the national team. My Paralympic moment was coming into the stadium with 60,000 people cheering, and we were at the very end of the stadium. As a teacher, I saw all these children lined up, so I went to give them high-fives along the line. To my surprise, there were disabled children among them. A little girl with an amputated arm looked at me and I looked at her, and I was like, “Wow, this is so cool. We have included all ability levels along that line.” There was a little guy in a chair. There were differing ability levels along the line, and another little girl gave me a quick hug. All those children were excited about being part of the Paralympic Games. That, to me, was my Paralympic moment because that is the legacy of 2010. We have enabled all children to feel they can compete at sports. Every single one of them has that opportunity.

Government is a place where people come together and where no one is left behind. Our playgrounds, recreation centres, and athletic training facilities should be no different.

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