This op-ed was published by The PIE News on September 8, 2023
Opinion piece by Louisane LeBlanc
Canada will never reach its full potential until people with disabilities are fully included in the fabric of society. After all, we represent 22% of the population and, inevitably, we contribute to Canadian excellence.
I’m heartened to see some concerted efforts over the years to remove barriers for Canadians living with disabilities. Last year, the federal government released Canada’s first-ever Disability Inclusion Action Plan which aims to improve the lives of persons with disabilities. This is a step in the right direction to ensuring all Canadians have equal opportunities.
In the same vein, the Canadian government launched in 2019 the Global Skills Opportunity mobility pilot program to help students study or work abroad. What sets GSO apart is that it prioritizes helping students with disabilities, Aboriginal students and students from low-income backgrounds gain access to international experiences.
The program has met with great success. To date, more than 5,500 Canadian post-secondary students have benefited from work or study abroad through GSO.
Of these, some 900 people with disabilities have had an experience that has transformed the way they see the world.
Without sustained funding, the pilot program will come to an end in 2025. I would like to see the budget envelope for this remarkable and innovative program renewed to enable people who are too often excluded to be well-equipped to compete in an ever-changing world.
I’m a person with reduced mobility, and in 2000 I won a generous scholarship without which I wouldn’t have been able to study for a semester at the Université de Poitiers in France. After finding a room with an adapted bathroom thanks to the help of the director of my study program, I navigated the maze of bureaucracy to obtain my student visa.
To this day, I thank my good providence for having put in my path an employee of the French consulate who knew the rules well and issued me a visa for six months less a day.
By doing so, she spared me a medical examination which, given my handicap, could have been catastrophic and would probably have closed the doors to France for me. On the day of my departure, I was excited and proud: my love of learning had given me wings and offered me an exceptional opportunity to better myself.
What an experience it was! Nearly a quarter of a century later, I can confirm that that trip was one of the most formative of my life.
The culture shock hit as soon as I set foot in Paris. The student who picked me up at the airport drove me to her parents’ house on this tiny street in the 17e arrondissement where she parked in the opposite direction to the traffic. I was learning that, in France, it’s possible to respect the rules while adapting them.
To this day, that lesson learned is often present in my mind: There are more than one way to reach a target. It’s therefore essential that I be flexible and adapt to the different situations I face.
By necessity, I also had to adapt how I expressed myself in order to be understood, and I even incorporated new expressions into my vocabulary: “oui, j’ai de la tune. C’est effectivement nickel chrome!”
Being francophone and not being understood by other French speakers made me aware of the importance of communicating well, but also of not judging a person by their accent or expressions, because language is intrinsically linked to our identity and culture.
As for me, the experience of studying abroad has made me much more aware of social inequalities.
I’ve since become sensitive to the plight of all those who immigrate or are displaced by human or climatic catastrophes.
I was in France of my own free will, but there were days when I felt misunderstood and alone in the world.
In the current state of the world, empathy is a skill that should be encouraged.
Adaptability to change, communicative agility and intercultural skills are assets eagerly sought by employers at home and abroad.
Studying or working abroad gives people with disabilities the tools they need to stand out from the crowd and contribute to society – in other words, to become empathetic leaders.
For all those students who could benefit from such an experience, I believe it is imperative that the budget for the Global Skills Opportunity pilot program be renewed.
Let’s give wings to these spirited young people and let Canada shine!
Louisane LeBlanc, M.A.
PhD candidate and lecturer
Department of Linguistics and Translation, Université de Montréal
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Fellow
Member of the Global Skills Opportunity (GSO) Advisory Group