Consultations 101

A good chunk of my advocacy work occurs through consultations – a considerably more closed-door affair than blogging and social media posts. Despite the lack of visibility, I believe it’s one of the most important and consequential aspects of my work. While blogging and social media is particularly excellent at raising awareness and challenging stigma, consultations provide a more focused way of addressing specific problems and coming up with actionable solutions.

Consultations allow me to learn more about relevant topics, learn from my peers, and challenge my own beliefs and positions. I believe that when we are granted exclusive opportunities like consultations, we owe it to our peers and those not invited to make the absolute most of it. So, I’m really excited to share some of my personal tips on how to be a strong disability advocate at these consultations.

Before the Consultation

Learn more about the topic or issue beforehand.

While this seems like common sense or not the most pressing prep element, I believe it’s always worth doing some extra research to look into new topics and emerging ideas, and to organize your thoughts on the themes discussed.

Learn more about the host and their organization.

A little research into your host’s background or the organization’s beliefs and mandate goes a long way! This allows you to tailor your responses to keep them relevant, and to ensure you aren’t explaining something a host already knows – it wastes time, and doesn’t look great.

If you can, find out who else will be participating.

This is a great chance to practice allyship and ensure diverse perspectives are being recruited – and if they aren’t, suggest some peers who would be a good fit. If a host has gone through the trouble of organizing a roundtable, they’ll want it to be as rewarding and comprehensive as possible. This can also become a lot of fun when you have a recurring cast of characters, and knowing a reliable friend will be in attendance can relieve some pre-meeting nerves! (More about making consultation connections later.) 

Additionally, you might be speaking on a broad topic alongside some renowned experts in niche fields – in this case, you can focus on your area of expertise while being confident other topics will be appropriately handled. 

Prepare speaking notes!

If you take away any tip from this blog, take this one. Speaking notes are an absolute essential for me now, and I never go into a consultation without them!

While everyone’s process is different, I start by creating a backgrounder on the host, organization, and field to reference in-meetings. This is a great safety net, as I know I’ll still be educated and informed even if the topic veers away from what was expected. Then, I brainstorm the different aspects I want to touch in (ideally in response to a prompt) and get to work creating the actual notes.

I use a skeleton-script: main bullet points have my main ideas, while indented bullets have the more expanded ideas and speaking points. This helps me stay on track, hit all the points I want to make, and keeps me feeling confident and prepared. Partly because of my background in theatre, and partly because I am so, so anxious all of the time, I go so far as rehearsing my points in the mirror and revising the speaking notes until I’m 100% confident in what I want to say. And let’s be real, coming up with an absolute mic-drop of a line and delivering it live in a consultation is an unparalleled experience. Like this one, “we’re already having this issue in Canada, let’s not export it elsewhere.” 

Prepare for challenges.

Advocacy work is hard! It often involves dealing with very difficult, personal, and vulnerable topics – and in roundtable consultations, you have to be prepared to listen to others’ trauma. Two tips here: maintain boundaries – if it’s too much, excuse yourself, and make sure you’re in a good headspace to engage in difficult conversations. It’s important to prepare for these challenges because more often than not, we want to actively and empathetically listen to our peers courageously sharing difficult stories that often relate to our own lived experience.

During the Consultation

Keep in mind who you’re representing.

Depending on your roles and affiliations, you might be representing a larger group or an entire demographic! It’s important to always remember that advocacy isn’t about yourself, it’s about everyone. Reaching out to your circles, getting peers’ thoughts on the topics, and reminding those at consultations that you can’t fully speak to all lived experiences under your purview is essential when representing others. It’s also important not to monolith yourself! Your experience isn’t the experience – acknowledge that there’s a diversity of lived, real, valid experiences, and when you can’t adequately speak to that, opt to speak to your lived experience.

Keep in mind who you are addressing.

More often than not, the consultation host is trying to help solve a problem – and while it’s way easier to act like that one person is the root cause of all your problems and get some negative feelings out, it is definitely not effective, and definitely not responsible advocacy work. When you treat consultations like a learning process or a two-way street, your host is often much more receptive to your suggestions and will leave with committed to further learning and growth. If you want to get feelings out, scream in a pillow.

Listen to others in attendance.

Roundtable consultations are by far my favourite, because they provide a chance to learn from other advocates and get a better understanding of the issues they’re facing. Often enough, our best resource is our peers. And when we are surrounded by our peers speaking their truths, it’s important to listen and learn. 

Turn on your camera!

With widespread burnout and zoom fatigue, there’s nothing like a friendly face cheering you on. One of my favourite consultation moments was when another advocate messaged me to say that my facial expressions really comforted them and encouraged them to speak up! Additionally, having your camera on allows you to react to what others are saying, and helps those reading lips understand what you’re saying.

Keep in mind time constraints.

It’s so important to be respectful of others and their time – and it’s just rude to take up all the space for yourself! In advocacy and all other aspects of my life, I love to time budget. For roundtables especially, I look through the agenda and allotted time slots for topics, take away a few minutes as a buffer, and divide by the number of participants invited to figure out how much time is appropriate to take up. If you have super detailed, complex ideas – water them down! Your complex ideas will do better off as notes sent to the host afterwards.

When someone hits a nerve.

This has happened to me quite a few times, and my over-expressive face reliably gives me away. It’s important to remember that there is no one truth – we all have different lived experience and approach advocacy work from different angles (except when a non-disabled person tries to speak over you on disability issues, then you do what you gotta do.) Instead of invalidating your peers or calling them out in an inappropriate way, try approaching the issue with phrases like “in my personal opinion”, “speaking from my lived experience”, or “I feel” statements. “I hope we can hold space for both person and identity first language, in line with how people choose to identify themselves” has come into play for me a lot! Of course, if anyone is making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe – speak up if you can, or speak to a moderator 1 on 1 ASAP.

Contextualize, critique, correct.

I opt for this three-pronged approach in all my responses. Whether you’re given a prompt, question, or topic, it’s helpful when everyone understands where you’re coming from and why this issue is important to you and the people you represent! After contextualizing, critique away – address barriers, ableism, exclusion. You’re being hosted for a consultation because there’s an identifiable issue or opportunity, so don’t be afraid to speak your mind. Then, you gotta correct by offering some actionable suggestions – how would you like to see the issue addressed, and what is important for a solution to include? Offering clear examples will prompt your host to begin considering next steps, and will help you hold hosts accountable in follow-up consultations or discussions.

After the Consultation

Connect with your peers!

By far (or by-and-for, if you get what I mean) the best thing I get out of consultations is connections. Roundtables and forums often gather leading experts and groundbreaking advocates – take advantage of it and reach out after the consultation! Even a simple message like “great points today! hoping to see you again in future consultations” can keep you on someone’s radar, and more often that not it leads to some great discussions. And there’s nothing like being recognized and warmly welcomed when you enter a consultation.

Follow up with the host.

Often in consultations, loose ideas are thrown around and actual follow-up actions are taken later. By following up with the host and signalling interest in mentioned initiatives, you’re more likely to be remembered, well received, and invited back. 

Share your notes.

If you use speaking notes, sharing them with the host organization’s notetaker or moderator is a great way to clarify or correct your points made in consultation. It also gives the host organization a chance to reply and further discuss key issues.

Respect privacy and consent!

While most roundtables don’t swear you to secrecy or make you sign any waivers (at least in my experience so far!), it’s polite and respectful to keep others’ identities and opinions private, unless you’re received their explicit permission. This loops back to the intro, where I discussed the lack of visibility around consultations. One way I’ve boosted transparency and visibility is by providing recaps of my personal opinions on the topics to my audience. It’s also a great way to keep the conversation going, and bring your new thoughts and ideas to a wider audience.

So, there you have it – my tips for a great consultation. I hope you found some relevant, and I hope you have your own tips to share within our community! Together, we can work together to address pressing issues, confront exclusion and inaccessibility, and challenge ableism. And when one of us gets to the table, let’s make sure we keep the door open for our well-deserving peers.

You-th Oughta Know: The Importance of Youth in Social Movements and Decision-Making Processes

As my advocacy work continues to gain momentum, I’ve begun to find myself one of the few, if not the only, youth in the room – which is a big change from my work at NEADS, a by-and-for post-secondary disabled students group.

And while I could celebrate punching above my weight and breaking down barriers, I’m not satisfied. I don’t think I will be satisfied until I am joined by my disabled peers at every committee, staff meeting, consultation, or working group.

Youth have always been foundational to social movements, the driving force behind the wider societal changes happening as I write this and you read this. And yet, we are discredited due to our age, discouraged from what we feel is a lack of experience, and discounted in our advocacy work. 

After writing that, I’m realizing it’s not the most encouraging start to what is supposed to be a call to action. What I mean by the opening is that things are hard, the odds are stacked against us, but we will continue to fight, lead, and succeed together as we work for a better future. 

In today’s blog, I want to get into my personal experience as a youth disability advocate, why I believe youth are essential to any social movement, the power youth hold, and how youth can get involved in the disability rights movement.

It’s shaping up to be a long one, so bear with me. And now more than ever, I encourage your feedback, your interaction, your connection – as youth, our numbers and our shared experience are our greatest assets.

Quite honestly, life is getting weird. Weird in a very fun, very cool way, but definitely weird.

As I begin to take on the role of International Chair for the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), I’m getting invited to some higher-level, kinda terrifying consultations and working groups – in one of these, I’ll be working at the same level as one of my university professors.

That does not feel like a normal thing to do at 20. Or at least, society and social norms tell me that’s not normal. And while I will undeniably feel out of place, inexperienced, and imposterish, I will still go. I will still speak my mind.

At IDW ’22, I spoke on reverse imposter syndrome: knowing I am definitely not supposed to be there based on others’ expectations, but being there and being loud anyways.

Because what are they going to do about it – publicly discredit me? Who invited me to this gig, anyways?

Maybe it’s not the most fun feeling – feeling out of your depth, unqualified, and out of place – but I believe that by us going to these opportunities, being loud, and being proud of our age and who we are, we will create space for more meaningful and authentic youth engagement and participation in decision making processes.

And maybe I can’t bring decades of experience and hundreds of professional connections to my work, but I can bring my youth, and the many undeniable assets that comes with it. 

Whenever I feel discouraged due to my age, I remind myself that youth have been foundational to social movements for decades. Youth were behind the 504 sit-in, the climate justice movement, the Arab Spring, Euromaidan, and countless other incredibly important historical movements.

We are the driving force and the front line of social movements around the world – from protesting to grassroots organizing. And this trend is only accelerating – youth today are getting involved in social movements and civic action earlier than ever. What was once reserved for college students is now being carried out by elementary schoolers.

Literal children are organizing walkouts to protest violations of their rights and to demand change, and while it is beyond encouraging, it’s disappointing they feel compelled to start so young.

Today’s youth are better educated on their rights, more empowered by changing social norms to stand up for themselves, and more connected than ever through social media – all of which build upon past generations of youth’s work.

And youth aren’t just behind protests – we’re the canvassers, volunteers, and staffers that keep community organizations and political campaigns afloat.

We are the ones working 12 hour days, double shifts, two to three jobs, and volunteering on top of it.

And while we are the ones essential to organizations and campaigns’ success, we go uncredited, underpaid (if paid at all), and uninvited to meaningful decision-making forums. 

I believe we as youth have a lot of reasons to participate in social movements. Due to our age and position within society, we both have the most to lose and the most to gain. We are the ones that live with the consequences of the decisions being made today, and the decision that are often made without our full and equal participation.

There’s a growing criticism of youth involvement in protest and social movements – but this criticism largely ignores the fact that, when excluded from traditional or conventional decision-making processes, protests or social movements are our only option to speak our minds, voice our opinions, and make the change we want to see in the world.

When we are included in key discussions, it is often through youth-specific forums hosted by adults. And in my personal experience, while the connections I’ve made with my peers at these forums have been invaluable, our (unpaid and uncredited) input is rarely meaningfully and impact fully incorporated into end results.

Those of us who are included in these forums also often come from highly privileged positions – to be involved in these forums, you often need connections, resources, and support. Even if these forums adequately incorporated their participants’ perspectives, the whole picture would continue to be missing.

Maybe I’m biased, but I believe youth have this undeniable power, and I have seen it in action nearly every day of my life.

We know today’s context best – while we might not have lived through historical precedents and past similarities, we are fully immersed in today’s context as it is, and we are not weighed down by what was and what could have been. We know the world around us, and we pick up on the changes.

Often, we are at the forefront of innovation. Take social media – a now-essential tool for advertising, entertainment, education, entrepreneurship, and organization, youth are dominating the field in all its forms.

One thing I always bring up around older generations is how my generation has deeply benefitted from growing up in the online age – with constant innovations, breakthrough ideas, and changing platforms, we know how to keep up with the times and adapt to new contexts as they develop. (Of course, social media is not all good, but that blog is for another day).

Our youth also gives us something to fight for – as I’ve said, we have the most to gain and most to lose, and we will live with the consequences. Like all generations, we want to enjoy full, meaningful, fulfilling lives – and youth is the best time to secure that for ourselves.

Our youth also makes us visionaries. Yes, we can be naive (and it would be naive of me to deny this), and definitely not the most reasonable or pragmatic at times, but we push the agenda forward, incorporate new, innovate ideas, and never take no as an answer.

Our youth sustains us in our darkest hours, because we know that within our lifetimes there is so much capacity and potential to change. And you can go ahead and discredit our optimism and idealism, but we know more than anyone else that we are the ones that will live with the consequences of our failures and our successes. 

Youth today are also exceptionally experienced and qualified, even when we don’t believe it ourselves. In this economy, so many of us have to work multiple jobs and pursue diverse additional experiences to stay competitive and afloat.

Take a 20-year-old and a 30-year old: the former started work at 14 and worked multiple jobs at once, while the latter started their career at age 24 after finishing a degree. Despite the 10 year age difference, both have 6 years of work experience – showing how age is not an absolute qualification. (Also I can’t believe I incorporated math into this, so sorry everyone.)

I believe that one of the greatest things holding my generation back (besides ageism, economic instability, climate change, shifting labour market demographics, I’ll just stop now) is our self-doubt.

We are so quick to perceive ourselves as unqualified, so quick to compare ourselves to our much older competition or colleagues, who grew up in phenomenally different circumstances. But we are qualified.

I have firsthand witnessed the incredible, impressive, and somewhat excessive qualifications of my generation. We work day and night, just so we can work harder the next day.

We have incredible experience that wasn’t even available to our older colleagues when they were our age. And in a world where relevant skills, experience, and qualifications change so fast, maybe we should re-evaluate this self-doubt.

Maybe, our youth makes us incredibly qualified in today’s context. As long as we keep buying into the idea that we are not ready, not qualified, not experienced – we will continue to be excluded from mainstream discussions, continue to be excluded from decision-making processes, continue to be nearly invisible to those in charge.

And yes, this is a gross oversimplification, but isn’t it so wonderful to believe that just by believing in ourselves we can change all of this?

And now, the call to action. Point blank: we need disabled youth at the frontlines of our disability rights movement, and more youth in all elements of decision-making processes.

We are qualified, innovative, and experienced. We know what we need, we know what needs to be changed, and we know what kind of world we want to live in.

Uno reverse imposter syndrome – sign up for forums, discussions, conferences. Either get your foot in the door, or break the door down. Claim a seat at the table, or pull one up yourself. The worst thing those in power can do is say no, and if they do, we find alternative routes to make change.

In my work with NEADS, I have seen my disabled peers excel. My peers are qualified, bold, powerful, intelligent, moving, and demanding the change they deserve to see in this world.

Let’s use our youth-dominated spaces to foster connections and support that will sustain us as we begin to move into older generation-dominated spaces. Let’s use our youth to introduce innovative and imaginative ideas.

In my work with CCD, I fully and transparently plan to usher in a new era, where youth participation and leadership is central to the organization. CCD actively wants youth involved, wants youth to lead, and wants to empower us to do so.

Without the encouragement of Heather Walkus, CCD’s Acting Chair, I would have never considered applying for International Chair, and I would love to return this favour by empowering my peers to join CCD alongside me. 

Don’t let me be the only disabled youth representation. I am actively asking my peers to prevent me from getting cool opportunities and life changing experiences.

Stop me! Please!

Because if I’m the only representation, I am not being good representation.

To my disabled peers, please get involved however, wherever you can, in whatever capacity works best for you. Whether that’s through the #MyNEADS Community, CCD (especially the International and Youth Committees!), or municipal, provincial, federal, and international politics and decision-making processes.

We are stronger together – and once a few of us get in, let’s make sure everyone gets in.