Carla Qualtrough: Dream big
By Kelly Haggart
“The world needs people who are passionate about making a difference and have the skills to do it,” Carla Qualtrough, minister of sport and persons with disabilities, told students and young alumni as she kicked off uOttawa Career Week 2017 on March 6. “I encourage you to pursue your own dreams — you never know where you’re going to end up.”
The former Paralympic swimmer, human rights lawyer and “very proud uOttawa alumna” (BSocSc ’93) said that she believes luck is really “the meeting between hard work and opportunity.”
“How hard you work is something entirely within your own control,” she said. “Opportunity, on the other hand, is much more elusive, and it doesn’t knock every day. So when it does, we need to be ready and we need to take full advantage.”
As Canada’s first ever minister dedicated to people with disabilities, Qualtrough is leading efforts to develop federal legislation that she hopes will make the country “a model of accessibility and inclusion for the world.”
The mother of four, with one child in university and another heading there in the fall, also reflected on the value of the university experience. “Your university years provide a unique opportunity to explore what your future could be like, to learn to think critically and to dream big,” she said.
“When I think of my time here, I realize how important those years were to the person that I would become. I think of how uOttawa gave me the space to explore some passions that had been budding in the areas of advocacy and inclusivity, the roots of which were sown in my childhood.”
Qualtrough, who won three Paralympic and four world championship medals, is to be inducted into the Canadian Paralympic Hall of Fame on April 7 in Ottawa.
On her Paralympic experience
“I was born legally blind and only have 10% corrected vision. The reality is that I was born into a world that wasn’t built for me, one where my needs were not taken into account, one that I would have to learn to constantly adapt to, one where people were going to make assumptions about what I could and couldn’t do my entire life.
“I was introduced to the world of Paralympic sport and my life was forever changed, both in the pool and in the way that I looked at the world. I travelled the world and was exposed to incredible demonstrations of ability and incredible discrimination. By the time I swam varsity for uOttawa in the lead-up to the (1992) Barcelona Paralympic Games, I’d been swimming up to 11 times a week for 10 years.
“I’d also been deeply impacted by the fundamental premise of the Paralympic sport system itself. Paralympic sports is a system where the playing field is levelled before the competition begins, where athletes compete against others with similar functional impairment and disabilities.
“I became fascinated by the idea that systems could be designed that included everyone from the start. What if we designed our legal system this way? Or our transportation or education system? What if we approached employment this way?”
On disability and accessibility
“The level of education among Canadians with disabilities is actually higher than in the non-disabled population. What happens, for the most part, is that when you can’t get a job when you have a disability, you go back to school — and you keep going back to school.
“There is no one more innovative in our country than someone with a disability, who basically all their lives has had to work around things that don’t work for them. So if you’re looking to hire someone who is super-innovative and not stuck doing things the way they’ve always been done, hire someone with a disability.
“As minister, I’m committed to fundamentally changing the conversation around disability. People with disabilities are constantly reminded throughout our lives that our needs are expensive and burdensome. We are told that people would like to help, they’d like to make things better, but we have to understand how much that would cost.
“We need to change this dialogue. We need to stop talking about needs and inabilities and start talking about economic, social and civic participation, for this is what it means to have the rights of full citizenship. I can only imagine how my own world would have been different without the accessibility challenges, discrimination and shocking attitudes that I sometimes faced.
“We have an amazing opportunity to effect real change with this (accessibility) legislation. It isn’t just about enacting a new law — it’s about creating a catalyst for social change. I’m so proud of this work and I can tell you that, as a university student, I had no idea that I would have the chance to make this kind of difference for Canadians, that I’d be able to help those with disabilities change how our society views inclusion.”
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Carla Qualtrough launches uOttawa's Career Week 2017. Photo: Andrea Campbell