This blog has been a long time coming. It’s been exactly 50 days since I touched back down in Ottawa after wrapping up the 16th Conference of State Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in New York City as an official member of Canada’s delegation.
You would think that after what could very well be the highlight of my disability advocacy career I’d be rushing to write some in-depth tell all blog while the memories were all still fresh – but to be completely honest, 50 days later I’m still unpacking the experience and grappling with what I learned.
I’ve learned that life has the very annoying habit of never slowing down, especially when you desperately need it to. There’s never going to be a perfect time to write the perfect blog! There will (hopefully!) always be new projects at work, new gigs being booked, critical moments in the movement happening.
I’m trying very hard to get better at balancing my life and really exploring disability unrelated aspects of my personality – in other words, I need to get a hobby before I am completely burnt out. All of this to say, the blog has been a little inactive, this blog is getting uploaded way too late, and I can’t bring myself to apologize.
One of the highlights of the conference was meeting New Zealand disability advisor Matt Frost, who reminded me I have the right to enjoy my youth. (More on him later!)
Before I get into the exciting day-by-day, play-by-play summary of the conference, let’s get the nerdy stuff out of the way.
The United Nations was founded in 1945 following the end of World War II to encourage international cooperation and the promotion of human rights and world peace. (This is a gross oversimplification, please just roll with it!)
The UN is headquartered in New York City, US – and this is where all the cool, regular meetings go down. This includes the General Assembly, where delegations (official representatives of State governments) meet and discuss critical issues, and the Security Council, where 5 permanent States and additional revolving countries debate ongoing security issues and occasionally approve actions to be carried out by UN member states (think peacekeeping forces, sanctions, statements).
The UN Headquarters is also where annual conferences on international human rights conventions (laws) happen. These conferences often occur on the anniversary of a convention entering into force after enough State Parties (countries agreeing to the convention) ratify it – meaning they agree to be respect, protect, promote, and fulfill the rights promised in the convention at international and national levels.
A Conference of State Parties (COSP) to most conventions kicks off with the Opening Session in the General Assembly Hall. (If you’ve seen a President, Prime Minister, King or Queen deliver remarks in front of some fancy green stone, odds are they were delivering an address in the General Assembly.)
At the opening session, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guerreros will deliver his remarks, followed by UN-appointed experts working in the field related to the convention being discussed. For COSP CRPD 16, this included Chairperson of the CRPD Committee Rosemary Keyes, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Gerard Quinn, and Youth Representative Ghanim al-Muftah.
The opening session generally takes up the entire first day, and for the following 2 days the official proceedings are discussions of the conference’s subthemes. At COSP CRPD 16, the official theme was “Harmonizing National Policies and Strategies with the CRPD: Achievements and Challenges.” As a policy nerd, I thought it was a great theme, but in practice I didn’t feel significant pressure on states to further policy harmonization. The subthemes (sexual and reproductive health, digital accessibility, and under-represented groups) definitely had more influence this year, particularly for the side events.
Killer segueway! While the official proceedings are undeniably very important, the real fun happens at the side events occurring throughout the conference.
Side events are generally hosted by a State Party, with participation from NGOs, advocates, and subject matter experts from around the world. And by fun, I mean in-depth discussions on more specific topics, Q&A sessions with internationally renowed experts, and networking with other delegates and NGO members.
That’s the nerdy stuff! Hopefully you’re still here with me and have not left or fallen asleep.
Before we get into the blog-y part of the blog, I really want to note that my experiences were so heavily shaped by my privilege coming from a rich, bilingual, Western, G7 country.
While the UN has six official languages (English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese), almost all side events were conducted in English – meaning I was able to participate without any language barriers.
I was also a member of one of the largest government delegations at the Conference – meaning I had a strong network of colleagues supporting me. Many countries had very small delegations, and some were missing altogether. While funding is available for delegations from Least Developed Countries (a UN designation providing additional support and resources), lower and middle income countries are unable to send large delegations, which results in a lack of visible presence and influence at the conference.
Alright. Nerd stuff is out of the way. Disclaimers have been given. As promised, here is my experience at the 16th Conference of State Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as a member of Canada’s official delegation.
While the experience technically started on June 12th when I headed to the airport at 4:30am, we’re going to have to quickly flash back to April 11th, 2022 when my boss told me our organization would be able to nominate up to three youth as potential delegates for COSP CRPD 15.
I had literally never wanted anything so bad in my life and immediately started hyperventilating while preparing my application. As an international development and human rights student passionate about disability rights, COSP CRPD had become the ultimate long-term career goal, the perfect intersection of my academic background and lived experience.
On May 19th, after a very excruciating month-long wait where I played Letters to Cleo’s I Want You To Want Me non-stop, I received the email letting me know I was selected. In the same email, I was also told due to changing pandemic rules and capacity limits, the majority of the delegation would be online only. Womp womp.
But as someone who loves online school, work, and events, I wasn’t going to throw away the opportunity just because I wasn’t getting a free ride to New York. I made the absolute best of the opportunity – wearing very cute outfits even if no one saw them, calling in to zoom side events from my shared apartment, aggressively networking, and making pretty unserious social media content.
Overall, I had a great time! Yes, it was shocking to learn so few COSP CRPD delegation heads are disabled, and yes, I shut my laptop on a side event on meaningful participation without a single disabled panelist, and yes, I felt like an absolute pariah representing Canada as MAID expanded (which, valid) – I learned so much about international disability rights, and began really connecting to the international movement.
While the thought of being invited back the following year had crossed my mind, I never actually thought it would happen. So when I received another email from The Government out of nowhere on April 4th inviting me back to the delegation for an in-person COSP CRPD 16 I literally did not know what to do with myself. Except hyperventilate. Recurring theme.
A month later, I was also asked to speak at Canada’s official side event on economic security and employment opportunities alongside foreign government officials and Rebecca Cokley, the executive director of Obama’s National Council on Disability. More hyperventilating.
I am someone who loves to overprepare for everything. It is my love language, it is my safety blanket, and it is the extremely helpful manifestation of my anxiety disorder. But by this time, I was dealing with a family emergency and wouldn’t fly back home until the weekend before I headed out for New York. For the first time in my life, overpreparation was off the table. I brainstormed my speech on the plane back home and finalized it over the weekend before heading back to the airport on Monday morning.
And this finally brings us to the actual Conference. A twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity and what could very well be the highlight of my career. (Don’t worry, I refuse to peak at 21 and will not rest until I find a way to top this.)
While Monday was the official civil society component of COSP CRPD 16, for me it was a travel day. I’ve been travelling the country over the last year for work, so saying I have an airport routine is an understatement. (Yes, blog on this and on disabled travel tips is in the works! That and a million other things…)
I hopped in a cab at 4:30am, arrived at 5am, and cleared security within 30 minutes. One thing you should know about me is that I am dead set on being the most efficient person at airport security. I will literally practice taking my laptop and liquids out of my suitcase as fast as I can. Unfortunately, there is something about my laptop bag that makes x-rays angry or something, so I just make a game out of being the most unbothered pulled-over person ever because there is literally nothing to worry about. I then thoroughly enjoyed my routine of checking my gate actually exists and doing an elite Starbucks-Booster Juice breakfast combo.
I’d only ever travelled to America once before and basically flunked the interview portion, so I made sure to rehearse this time. Which felt extra important because being a government delegation member going to the United Nations felt pretty unbelievable to me, and I felt it would also be unbelievable to pretty much anyone else ever.
During the little interview section at customs, I was met with a semi-skeptical look, but once I emphasized I was a youth delegate I was let through pretty easily. (We’ll get more into it later, but I was an equal member of the delegation with full access to the UN HQ. Explaining I was a Youth Delegate was pretty much a get-out-of-jail/confusion-free card for the entire week though.)
While I managed to jump on an early flight as spaces were open, my fellow youth delegate Paula MacDonald (who is Deaf) didn’t hear the announcement and didn’t get my text message about it until it was too late. Luckily, she and her partner made it through customs in time, and it was so great to meet her for the first time in-person after being on the virtual delegation together the year prior! We parted ways so she could pre-board, and then we found out I was sitting right in front of them!
After we touched down at LaGuardia, we grabbed a cab to take us downtown. One thing I love about NYC is the accessible cabs – so naturally Paula, her partner, and I started playing around with the “accessibility mode” on the cab’s touch screen. We then got stuck on accessibility mode (which was pretty much just a voiceover). Hilarious way to start your time in New York for a disability conference.
I checked in around 3pm and did my beloved “hotel arrival” routine, which like my airport routine is highly polished thanks to my work travel for NEADS. My advice: security check, unpack, shower. Planes are so gross.
Around the time we touched down in New York, I received an email from a civil society colleague inviting me to an informal Canadian CSO (civil society organization) dinner. I can’t stress how much joy this brought me – while I’ve always been accepted in the community and no one has ever questioned my youth or qualifications, being invited to meet everyone in person at this dinner was very validating!
Everyone made an effort to include me, without being patronizing or infantilizing. I also learned so much about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into running a CSO, which has stuck with me as I begin to set long-term career goals.
Another thing you should know about me is I am in a near-constant state of hypervigilance, especially when outside. And it’s not for nothing, it’s literally the exception for me to be able to go outside and not be harassed or not be convinced I’m being followed. Somehow, New York City feels safer than Ottawa.
After the dinner wrapped up, I half-ran home not because I was being followed – but because it was raining. It was such a liberating moment, to be unafraid walking home after being accepted by your community on your way back to prepare for your first day at the United Nations at age 21.
Waking up for the first day of COSP CRPD 16 brought the same level of joy as waking up for Christmas when I was 6. I literally woke up and just started beaming.
And then I started developing my morning routine: every morning I would get dressed, speed walk to starbucks for breakfast and caffeine, do my makeup, grab a smoothie from the lobby, pack my things up for the day, and head out.
On the first day, we (the youth delegates) met up with two members of the delegation from ESDC before walking over together to Canada’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. (I’ll keep their identities private, but I have to say the ESDC Government People were so patient in answering my millions of questions and entertained my mini-interviews about their career paths. Really great people that were really great to work with!)
Once we arrived at the Mission, we were guided to a meeting room for a pre-delegation meeting meeting with Minister Qualtrough, then-Minister of Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion. While I had done a few roundtables with Minister Qualtrough, spoken at her youth town hall, and attended her International Day of Persons with Disabilities event, I didn’t expect her to remember much about me. And then I learned I had gained a (favourable, I think!) reputation for “chomping at the bit” to get down to advocacy work and share my prepared points.
Once we were all settled in, Qualtrough got right to the point and asked us about the pressing issues our communities were facing – which I really appreciated. Then, we wrapped up our pre-meeting meeting and headed into a larger room for the full delegation meeting. In total, the delegation included Minister Qualtrough as delegation head, Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae as deputy delegation head, two ESDC officials, one GAC official, two BC government representatives, and one Manitoba government head. We were also supported by Mission Staff, who were like the ESDC reps kindly willing to entertain my infinite questions.
After going around the table and introducing ourselves, youth delegates were invited to ask the provincial representatives about their work. Knowing we were short on time and wanting to yield it to the other youth delegates, I said “I’ll just find you and grill you later.” Luckily, everyone laughed. And no, I did not actually grill anyone – we did have some lovely conversations though. Very non-grilly.
Once the meeting ended, we were given our official UN delegate passes and Canadian delegation pins – a semi-circle representing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a maple leaf on top. New prized possession.
Then, we all headed over to the UN (where the Mission staff now entertained my questions, truly a group effort here) and entered through the official delegates’ entrance. It’s a fairly discreet, plain entrance not too different from the other entrances – but being able to go through it really cemented that I was an actual delegate at the United Nations. I’ve never been someone closely attached to reality, so little reminders like these really helped me grapple with the importance of this opportunity.
As one of the largest delegations, 6 of us headed off to Canada’s official table in the General Assembly, and the rest of us found seats off to the side. (Fun fact I learned later: delegate passes don’t work on the doors to the audience seating above the GA hall!) Soon after we took our seats, Secretary General Antonio Guerreros welcomed everyone to COSP CRPD 16 and gave his opening remarks. He then handed it over to the President of the General Assembly, the CRPD Committee Chair, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Youth Representative.
After opening remarks were delivered, the arguably coolest (and arguably nerdiest) part of the conference kicked off. Each country is given up to 5 minutes to share their progress realizing the CRPD, and after 3 countries an NGO or human rights institution are given 3 minutes to provide their comments.
Like last year, Minister Qualtrough was one of the very few delegation heads who openly identified as disabled. At a conference where Nothing About Us Without Us is said at nearly every side event, every country statement, every thematic debate – the impact of representing one of the few countries with meaningful disability representation finally hit me. I was slowly realizing just how much of a leader Canada is when it comes to disability rights. (Shocking, I know! More on this later!)
Once Qualtrough delivered her statement, I left the GA to get a feel for the building before the next side event began. Scoping out spaces helps me feel more secure in new places, and sometimes leads me to find very cool fun things – like life is just one big scavenger hunt. I stepped out to check out the Rose Garden, and then was convinced I was locked out of the building until I realized I just needed to tap my pass.
I headed up to the Delegates Lounge, and sat there for a minute to really show myself that I was a full, valid UN delegate that belonged there. As far as I know, Canada was the only country with actual youth delegates (meaning full delegates who are also youth) and I really wanted to fight off imposter syndrome and get high-ranking officials from around the world more comfortable with youth taking up space.
To everyone’s credit, I didn’t get a significant amount of funny looks – but I find most delegates are very good at minding their business, since they have so much. (I swear this is a hilarious joke. To probably a very niche crowd. Let me have this.)
After unashamedly exploring the UN and sufficiently geeking out, I headed down for my first side event hosted by the Zero Project, a non-profit based out of Austria. Every year, they put on a conference at the UN’s Vienna Office, where they discuss best practices and legal frameworks around disability rights.
It was an incredibly well-organized event, with their Model Policy Report printed out and examining model practices around CRPD and SDG implementation from around the world. You can’t imagine my shock when Canada’s Accessible Canada Act was the very first example of a national model policy.
At my very first side event, on the very first day of the conference, I was having an existential crisis.
I’d come into this space prepared to weather some backlash around Canadian disability policies because there is so much criticism domestically. But this space was the opposite of domestic, and I was so absorbed in my own privilege and in my own life that I failed to recognize the ACA as a significant milestone and best practice in the international context!
When I first entered the room, I was greeted by Robin Tim Weis, Director of International Affairs for the Zero Project. We started chatting, and I was confused by his positive perception of Canada. By the time I was leaving, I pulled him aside to thank him for organizing the event and let him know it completely changed how I see Canada in an international context.
This is also where I met the first of many Australians. There was literally a joke going around that the Australians took up two entire planes – and now I’m not even sure it was joke.
After learning about actually important stuff about Australia’s disability context from my new friend Alex who does great work at a human rights firm, I then learned he was interested in our wildlife. An Australian interested in OUR wildlife?? My perceptions of my own country were now being challenged on two fronts. I left Alex with the knowledge of what a fisher was, and his friend left me with a Kangaroo pin. Way to commit to the bit Australia.
I then headed over to a side event on accelerating inclusive sustainable development through promoting community care, and was pretty quickly let down as service providers, business models, and the care work sector were all prioritized over actual disabled people. Before I left early, as some panelists were clearly sick and it was a small room, I did pick up some helpful insights on using the SDGs as a mechanism to push for disability rights and inclusion.
With some extra time on my hands and no more side events scheduled for the day, I headed back to the now much more empty GA for the remainder of the opening session.
With the other Canadian delegates off on official meetings or at side events, a GAC representative was holding down the fort. GAC Rep (I will also hide her identity) was so, so cool to work with – she was Gen Z, had established a very impressive career for herself, and (guess where this is going) entertained my millions of questions.
Still existentially reeling from the Zero Project event, and miffed (there is no better word here) by the Care Agenda event, sitting at Canada’s GA table as an official delegate was the perfect setting to recalibrate and situate myself in an international context.
Once official proceedings ended at 6pm (love the UN’s punctuality), I headed back to the hotel to drop my stuff off before heading out for Canada’s informal gathering. In classic Carly Fox fashion, I ran into another delegate and had a great talk with them before heading out. A block later, I turn around and see said delegate walking my way. Obviously – we are going to the same place. I then turned around and very awkwardly made eye contact until they caught up.
We then walked over together, which was a great opportunity to grill “the entire BC government” as I called our two BC government reps. (I don’t even remember why I did this, but I think it’s still funny without context.) As you can probably guess, they were also very patient with me and entertained this joke and my questions.
We then arrived at the pub venue, and found out the NYC Trivia Team was actively trivia-ing. With a loud MC, loud music, and a crowded venue, we were really putting the informal in informal gathering. To really “youth” it up, I ordered a drink, downed it, talked to Qualtrough, almost lost my passport AND wallet, then left.
Let’s break that down.
Drinking is self-explanatory.
Once there was an opening, I was able to sit down and very informally tell Qualtrough that I really appreciate all the work she is doing, even if I don’t always come across that way. I also finally got to explain that I created the new verb “Qualtrough’d”, which is when you’re the only disabled liberal MP and are thus blamed for every single disability issue even if it’s out of your mandate, and even if literally every other MP should also care.
This was incredibly timely as she had to unexpectedly leave the conference to defend Bill C22 (the Canadian Disability Benefit Bill) in the House of Commons. Why C22 wasn’t scheduled to be discussed earlier in the season vs the week before the House rose for summer and the week of COSP CRPD16 is beyond me – but it does cruelly illustrate how useful my verb is.
About a week from time of writing, Qualtrough was shuffled off the disability portfolio during a massive cabinet shuffle. It was an incredibly unexpected (and personally upsetting) move, and I’m still waiting on the reasoning to come to light.
After this chat, I cashed out. After the waiter asked what the gathering was about and I explained, he admitted he was a Model UN nerd. I then admitted I was also a Model UN nerd. I then walked away without my wallet and passport, and he got it back to me. Some real Model UN comradery there.
Having drank on an empty stomach (some call it irresponsible, some call it basic economics), I ventured out into the New York night to hunt down some Sweetgreen. For my fellow Canadians, Sweetgreen is like if Freshii had actual flavour. After obtaining the Sweetgreen, I made it 10 blocks back to the hotel, holding my meal like a football and again half-running.
Yet another solid end to the day.
I woke up the second day with my body metaphorically screaming at me.
I’ve learned I can get away with anything for about 4-12 hours before the arthritis pain kicks in – like some sort of get out of jail free limbo. On mornings like this I generally do one big yell (to scare the pain away, obviously), make myself get out of bed (which worsens the pain), and then get on with my day (which shockingly does improve the pain!)
After completing the Morning Routine once again, I had an extra hour before heading over to the UN – which I spent making last-minute “softening” comments for my side event that day (nicer words and add ons since I found out just the day before Canada was pretty good at disability from an international lens) and running it almost obsessively.
As someone who launched their advocacy career during the pandemic, I’m still not entirely used to in-person speaking gigs. At my most recent in-person speaking gig prior to this, I got the dreaded shaky voice. But I am someone who gladly embraces delusion, so I chose to tell my brain the side event was just a casual chat with the pals. (Spoiler: it worked!)
After a brief delegation meeting in the UN HQ (and after learning someone on this earth actually shows up to things earlier to me, looking at you Manitoba Man), I headed over to Argentina’s event on financial autonomy but “found out” it was Spanish only (spoiler: there was english interpretation, my bad!)
After checking the list of side events, I headed over to an event on disability data collection organized by the Organization of American States and the World Federation of Deaf Persons. No offense to Argentina or financial autonomy, but this really worked out!
This event had fantastic disability representation and very useful takeaways around supporting Disabled Persons Organizations (DPOs) in disability data collection activities to bridge government gaps and advocate for policy change.
I then headed over to Norway’s event on democratic participation and inclusive elections, which I was very excited for! While I have absolutely no political inclinations myself, I’m very passionate about civic engagement and improving disability representation in high-level decision-making positions of power.
To make things even cooler, the World Bank’s International Disability Advisor was moderating the event! The European Disability Forum was a key speaker, sharing how they found 400,000 people with disabilities were unable to vote in recent elections – particularly people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Emma Bishop of Down Syndrome International, who is a fantastic advocate I met earlier in the lobby, shared how civic engagement and democratic participation was an empowering experience for her, and Dewlyn Lobo of People First Canada shared how she was prevented from voting by an ableist elections officer. Pretty stark contrast – clearly, Canada has a lot more to do to become barrier free.
Conveniently already in the same room for Canada’s side event, I anxiously puttered around until it was time to set up.
Before I started drafting my script for the event, I checked out the other speakers to make sure I wouldn’t repeat what they would say – and that is how I learned about the absolute icon and legendary disability rights advocate Rebecca Cokley. Not only was she the Executive Director of Obama’s National Council on Disability, but she specialized in disabled post-secondary students’ mental health.
Hello, new best friend!!
Rebecca walked in and I immediately told her I thought she was the coolest, and I’d like to say we hit it off from there! She told me this incredible story about how she learned the sign for “booty call” (which I won’t repeat here, but it came from a wonderful display of cross-disability connection), and I knew we would get through this event just fine. I could go into the event, but I’ll just link the recording here for anyone who wants to check it out. Watch here: https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1u/k1us9b5vq4
Spoiler: I got through the event in one piece! I genuinely believe that if Rebecca hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have felt empowered enough to confidently deliver my speech. Besides the importance of diverse representation, having more than one person from the disability community really provides a safer space for both/all disabled people to feel more comfortable and supported when sharing their lived experience.
After the event, I went home and took a nap. I generally take naps after all my events, and this was no exception. While it did feel a little strange having no one there to celebrate with, I played Taylor Swift as I dozed off and it was still a great experience.
After the power nap, I headed back to UN HQ for the last side event of the day, where my fellow youth delegate Paula MacDonald was presenting!
At this point, I knew I was physically in trouble. I have this unexplained difficulty with walking where it feels like my connective tissues are on fire and I experience severe pain, often having to stop for the pain to momentarily subside.
Deciding to go back to the hotel for a nap was truly one hell of a chronic pain trade off – more energy but more pain. Them’s the breaks.
This side event was probably one of the best of the whole conference, organized by the CRPD Committee, UN Women, Women Enabled International, OHCHR, and Global Affairs Canada – literally an all star cast. I’ll just include the summary I submitted to The Government as part of my delegate work because it’s worth going in-depth on.
Co-hosted by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Women Enabled International, and co-sponsored by Global Affairs Canada, UN Women, and OHCHR among others – one of the biggest events of the conference organization-wise was ironically in the smallest conference room. Exploring the experiences of disabled women and gender diverse people in both the women’s and disability movements, this event explored the double discrimination these advocates and activists face and shared useful practices to meaningfully empower disabled women and gender diverse people.
An advocate from Transforming Communities for Inclusion based out of India powerfully shared her experience as a psychiatric survivor who navigated the colonial system of mental health common in commonwealth countries. She shared how patriarchy worsens the experiences of women and girls with psychosocial disabilities as we lack the systemic power necessary to challenge harmful mental health institutionalization practices. She then shares how the CRPD changed psychosocial disability groups’ organizing to connect to the wider disability community, and challenged the mental health model to instead advocate for community inclusion and deinstitutionalization. She walked audiences through the three relevant lenses: mental health is narrow and prevents meaningful change, the SDGs allow for social justice and opportunity, but only the CRPD can safeguard our rights as psychosocially disabled people.
Following the TCI representative, a queer and disabled woman from Kenya shared her experiences relating to gender-based violence in an East African context, where intimate partner and caregiver violence goes unpunished and femicide against disabled women is growing in prevalence. The inaccessible justice system there, paired with a political landscape currently considering implementing anti-queer legislation, means queer disabled women are unable to navigate the justice system. While Kenya has a protection bill against disabled people, it promotes sympathy and charity narratives that deny disabled people their agency and autonomy.
After the Kenyan advocate, Paula MacDonald, a Canadian Youth Delegate, impactfully shares her lived experience as a member of the Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan who was adopted and raised by a white, hearing family from a young age. In this isolating environment, she was denied both her Deaf and Indigenous identities until she was able to attend residential deaf school and reclaim her Indigenous identity in recent years. Paula advocated for improved and guaranteed funding for deaf education, for accessible ASL education instead of pushing implants and lip reading, and for improved coordination between federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal governments concerning accommodations on reserves. Paula powerfully shares that Deaf Indigenous people should not have to choose between their identities – pursuing ASL education often requires Indigenous people to leave their reserves, and those on reserves are often unable to access accommodations and celebrate deaf culture.
After this incredible event, I rallied and headed off to Microsoft’s NYC Headquarters for their Disability Data and Drinks reception, where they launched their disability data database project and invited disability organizations to partner with them.
Luckily, this was not my first event with an open bar so I had that aspect covered. (Quick tip: rotate water and wine!)
I was lucky enough to get an invite from the Zero Project, and I then sent that invite to literally everyone I knew who was in NYC for the conference. (Turns out it was an open invite! No wrongdoing here!) I had a great chat with Robin from the Zero Project and offered some points on improving their youth program, and learned more about their very cool conference in Geneva.
And then I grabbed Sweetgreen, and went home.
It was a good thing I only had one day left and the side event successfully behind me, because I swear I was literally eroding on the spot.
As I was on my Starbucks Speed Run, I ran into two of the interpreters who accompanied Paula, who were just running! (like on purpose!) Literally what can’t they do!
We had an extra hour before the delegation meeting, so you can imagine my surprise as I ran into half the delegation on their way to 8am side events. Cruel and unusual!
As Paula was flying home that day, the interpreters were also on their way out. I stopped and thanked them for all their hard work (and for translating the literal nonsense I say!), and they said the nicest, kindest things that gave me the push I needed to wrap up the conference the best I could.
After the delegation meeting, I very confidently walked into a building for a side event off-HQ campus, swiped my card, and didn’t get in. I saw security and showed them my pass, and I think they were going to manually just let me in when I realized I was in the wrong building! Like I said, I was eroding on the spot.
Luckily, I got it together and found the right venue in time to meet up with some other Canadians for an event on national autism strategies by the Autism Alliance of Canada!
This is when Matt Frost, the disability advisor from New Zealand, pulled me over and told me he really enjoyed my remarks at the event the day before, which was another much-needed boost at the end of a very exhausting conference.
Another boost was not needing to mask in this space – and once I stopped masking I realized just how emotionally exhausted I was from masking over the last few days.
I did not mask again for the rest of the trip.
This event featured a lot of lived experience, which is often sorely needed in autism-related events – both from self-advocates and from high-ranking government officials!
Afterwards, I did not have to move a muscle. Which is great, because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have cooperated anyways.
Once the event was over, two plane-fulls of Australians descended.
This is a joke, but there were a good number of Australians and we had a great chat about improving youth opportunities at COSP CRPD! I also took a bereal with some of them – so I guess you could say we were at least improving youth representation.
The Australian youth delegates were phenomenal, Kerri Joffe from ARCH Disability Law was incredible as always – but I had to walk out once someone started presenting on their adaptive sailing program where they never use the word disability because it’s a stigmatized word. I did not have the energy to not roll my eyes (aka mask).
I’ve learned that if you look like you know what you’re doing (and benefit from an immense amount of white privilege), you can usually get away with anything. (See the almost-UN building break in above).
And this belief was thoroughly reinforced when I walked into the intersectional gender rights event and was asked by an organizer if I was the UK government representative.
I tried to be comforting and say “I get that all the time”, which was probably subconsciously intended as a joke and was positively received.
I like to believe there’s a little section of my brain that is labelled “court jester” that functions when the rest of me is very tired.
While I was impressed by the fairly equal levels of gender representation at the conference, the next side event was almost entirely women. The gross failings of men to practice allyship and correct the systemic sexism they benefit from aside, it was a very nice, empowering atmosphere. Probably extra empowering for me as I could’ve pulled a Catch Me If You Can moment. (There is a clear correlation between the bad jokes in my blogs and the writing time I spend on them…)
I learned that the UK government has spent millions of pounds since the pandemic hit to support international DPOs working on gender-based violence, learned about how the Africa Disability Protocol surpasses the CRPD, and heard from a representative of the World Federation of the DeafBlind’s Croatian chapter with lived experience, which was the first instance of deafblind representation I’ve seen at any disability rights conference or event.
While my body thoroughly hated me at this point, I was more than happy to subject it to extreme physical pain as I made my way back to the mission for a meeting with Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae.
A big, big thanks to the Mission staff for organizing this meeting last minute after I was unable to make the Canadian NGO-Ambassador meeting the day before.
I got there early and promised the delegation staff I wouldn’t cause any trouble, then immediately accidentally crashed a lady lawyers reception. I swear the Deputy Head of the UN mission is the nicest woman alive – she recognized me, came up, invited me to network, and encouraged me to get some food and drink without missing a beat.
To my credit, I generally had my shit together for the entire conference until this meeting- because when I saw him approach, I actually freaked out a little and had to ask if we stand when he enters the room.
And I’d like to think I still had it mostly together – I wrote my three main advocacy points on the back of one of the business cards I had custom made for the conference as memory prompts, and he swapped me cards halfway through the meeting which I will take as a good sign.
Now that I think about it, networking with business cards is too much like playing Pokémon when you were younger.
I usually treat people as people, and they usually seem to like it, but I had 20 minutes with the ambassador (and another youth delegate) and wanted to get right to business. Despite this, here are my people behaviour observations: Rae was fairly laid back while being to the point, chose tea over coffee, and wore piano socks. Cool guy.
After this event, guess what I did. You know it – I got Sweetgreen.
And then I headed back to HQ for the final side event of the conference on ratifying the CRPD’s Optional Protocol (OP).
You can (or can’t!) imagine my absolute joy when I saw Matt Frost there, and then when I then learned he’s actually speaking at the event!
Matt pulled up a seat next to me and we started chatting more about the autism event from earlier in the day when another panelist pulled up a seat on the other side of me. They also ended up speaking back to back, which drew attention to the 21-year old sitting in between them making very amused faces.
(I just found it hilarious that I was just chilling there. Like a capybara. You don’t know how it got there but you let it be.)
This was a perfect event to wrap the conference up with, as government representatives discussed how ratifying the OP provides helpful feedback from the CRPD committee on how to improve their ratification processes.
To sum up the OP, it’s a procedural convention that allows the CRPD committee to provide feedback and that sets up a mechanism for third party complaints. The complaints mechanism usually deters States from ratifying the OP, and only 104/186 CRPD parties have ratified it.
Matt spoke on how New Zealand has benefitted from the CRPD Committee’s feedback, and how they have a coalition of compensated DPOs who independently monitor CRPD implementation. This was a disability advocacy ammo goldmine.
And that was it! I went back to the hotel, ordered in dinner (not Sweetgreen this time!), and just generally collapsed. Arguably an anti-climatic ending, but pretty authentic to how I generally live my life.
The next day I packed up, took the subway to LaGuardia (side note: I am in love with the NYC subway and returning to Ottawa and its sham of a – I don’t even know what to call it – a light rail service is cruel), and flew home.
A lot of people have this weird misconception that once you land one great opportunity, more great opportunities find you – and this is the biggest lie I have ever heard.
This incredible, exhausting, eye-opening, existential, twice-in-a-lifetime-or-more-if-I-can-help-it opportunity is just the start of the next chapter.
There are new contacts to follow up on, new organizational connections to maintain, new ideas to develop, new everything and anything!
I tried to write this blog returning from a hometown right after the conference, or at least start the outline.
A lot of the time, I just write my blogs without an outline (completely unhinged you could say) – so what started as intent for an outline has turned into the blog’s unanticipated ending:
I am sitting here trying to write the outline of this blog on a bumpy train on my way back from an extended work trip listening to Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain on repeat and I feel my resolve and my fight and my energy and everything I need to do this work come back to me.
I’ve been so committed to being transparent about my work, wanting to show it’s not all glamourous and paid travelling (though there is a shockingly large amount of that) – it’s exhausting and painful and grueling.
But I think I’ve forgotten how important and cool and challenging (in a good way) this work is. Maybe I’m burnt out, and maybe my health is deteriorating, and maybe it’s hard to wrap up all these conflicting emotions and experiences in a blog – but this has been the best experience of my life and I know I’m not going to rest until I’m back there.