Meet the Disability Justice Network of Ontario

The Disability Justice Network of Ontario

Creating a world where people with disabilities are free to be.

1. Tell us about yourselves and your initiative.

The Disability Justice Network of Ontario is an initiative led by young Black women and women of colour with disabilities. We are working towards a world where people with disabilities are free to be. We believe that people with disabilities are more than just economic units of labour or potential customers. Our starting point is access to services, education, and employment, but we aim to work beyond to emphasize access to shelter, food, and community. We currently operate out of Hamilton, Ontario, but hope to expand provincially over the next few years.

Our work aims to centre those with the least resources first, and centres poor people of colour and women with disabilities, and we foreground our work in addressing the unique ways that classism, sexism and racism has intersected with ableism in settler-Canada to create fundamentally different realities for Black, Indigenous and people of colour with disabilities. For example, we try to focus on the ways that ableist immigration policies and forced sterilization have disproportionately affected disabled migrant, immigrant and Indigenous communities; and the ways that policing and carding targets Black, Indigenous and racialized disabled people in Toronto.

The three founding members are Black and brown women with disabilities, and we come from different backgrounds and different skills. Eminet Dagnachew is a social worker by trade and works in the Homelessness Serving sector. She is passionate about using evidence-based community-based research to inform practice and centring the experiences of those being served in all aspects of service delivery.

Sarah Jama is a community organizer from Hamilton, Ontario. She is a current board member with the Hamilton Transit Riders Union and is working with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board to create curriculum around combating anti-black racism. She works at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion as a Program Coordinator and has managed two electoral campaigns in Hamilton.

Shanthiya Baheerathan has primarily worked on issues related to gender equity and violence against women. She was the founding member and inaugural manager of McMaster’s Women and Gender Equity Network and was a Studio Y Fellow where she researched sexual health education needs of South Asian youth, long-term ethnospecific senior care, and responses to sexual violence in university contexts. She is currently working towards a statistics degree.

Visit the DJNO website at

2. How do you view leadership?

What does leadership mean to you?
What are the qualities of a great leader?

We all view leadership in different but complementary ways, and being able to work with one another allows us to build off these different skill sets. Combined, we view leadership, in the context of our community-based disability justice initiative, as prioritizing internal and external relationship building, thinking and planning in the long-term, and meeting the access needs that prevent people from participating.

“We believe that leadership is a commitment to the people that are most affected by the issues that we mean to address.”

We believe that leadership is a commitment to the people that are most affected by the issues that we mean to address. Externally, this means consistently providing space for community members to give input and feedback about our work. From the internal perspective, it also means that the organization is led by a diverse set of young people who are personally affected by the issues and can accurately reflect the needs of our communities. Moreover, it means that we value the skills, insight and labour of the people who want to work on issues related to disability justice. We attempt to foster their skills so that they can go on to lead initiatives in the future.

We also believe that leadership always has a longer-term perspective in mind, which works towards sustainable actions that build on one another for long-term outcomes. When we organize an event, we don’t just want to focus on having the workshop, but what comes out of the workshop, for example, the conversations, the relationships, the collectivization of issues, and the skill-sharing that will enable further individual and collective initiatives. We plan while simultaneously recognizing that every kind of action has the potential for measurable output, which when done properly, can be turned into impacts over time. We recognize within our planning that change is not linear or immediately measurable, and it sometimes takes a few years to see impacts from some organizing. So, while we plan, we also try to give adequate time and energy to the opportunities that come our way and try our best to act.

Finally, we believe that, in the past, leadership has been a phenomenon which has excluded disabled people, women, and Black, Indigenous and racialized people. There has not been enough investment in, first, creating universally accessible spaces for leadership, and second, in fostering growth and leadership in communities that have not had the opportunity to practice their leadership skills. We do our best to rectify this problem, by working to build capacity.

3. What challenges do you experience organizing, leading and making a change in your community?

Activism and community organizing, as it exists, is fundamentally ableist --whether it is because actions and events only rely on the physical presence of abled people, or because the intents of the actions do not include eliminating ableism.

The history of disability rights activism and disability justice activism, as it has been lead by people with disabilities, has also been invisibilized. While people know the history of organizing in feminist or anti-racist spaces, anti-ableist organizing has not been highlighted as necessary knowledge in movement building.

Furthermore, most disabled organizations and spaces are predominantly lead without considering the intersectional perspectives of disabled people of colour and disabled women of colour, who have fundamentally different realities. The process of organizing from this space requires us to be very diligent about accessing the histories of disability justice and rights organizers and ensuring that this history is continued with our work. There is also a lack of data that considers the intersections between disability, race, class and gender, and if the data exists there is no understanding of why people with disabilities are victimized, or the processes in place which create individual and systemic victimization. For example, a recent report just came out about the high rates of emergency care use by people with developmental disabilities because primary care is not meeting their needs – a deeper look into this issue is needed, as is a deeper look into many of the statistics that come out about people with disabilities. Elucidating the systemic causes of these disproportionate statistics is essential to our advocacy.

One of our biggest struggles as an organization is figuring out the right balance between organizing, which are the events and workshops and "actions," and building capacity internally as an organization, for example, balancing the admin, capacity building and management of our volunteers and staff.

4. What successes are you really proud of?

We are really proud of our youth council who have started their programming this year, they received training from the three of us on the history of disability rights and justice, the history of violence against people with disabilities by the government of Canada and how to organize through the Ganz model. They also received a train the trainer training from the Ontario Human Rights Commission which taught them about their rights and the mechanisms they have to enact change in educational settings.

They have also started to propose initiatives and campaigns that we are all excited to work on. For example, three of our members, Devin, Olivia, and Matt have been working on a snow removal campaign in Hamilton.

5. What advice do you have for other young people wanting to take leadership?

How would you encourage them to do so?

Young people who want to get involved should primarily be motivated by the issues that they hope to address. If you are passionate about an issue, get informed, and respect the complexity and the multi-dimensional history of organizing that has come before you.

I’m not really sure where this proverb comes from, but it goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I think an issue that has plagued organizing is the tendency to move fast, which has resulted in single-issue policies that have marginalized the most marginalized in our society. While it is sometimes necessary to move fast, building the relationships and complicating the issue before these moments of actions is necessary to ensure that no one gets left behind.

“If you are passionate about an issue, get informed, and respect the complexity and the multi-dimensional history of organizing that has come before you.”

Building relationships through a process of learning history of the organizing around the issues you care about will help you build a group of mutually supportive activists who are equally motivated to address issues of social justice. Others’ stories and experiences with the issues at hand will bring in complexity to your issues and you will be forced to grapple with the stories of people you care about, which will help you complicate the issues you are working on so that they are motivated by multi-issue politics.

In the midst of all of this consultation and research, make sure to act to attempt to address the issues that you care about.

6. What recommendations do you have for those in the sector that want to support youth leadership?

Think about philanthropic, government, other not for profit organizations.

To support disabled youth organizing, all organizations need to have a budget line solely dedicated to access needs, not doing so marginalizes an already marginalized segment of the population, these access needs need to consist of funding for ASL, printed material, transportation, PSWs, and childcare.

Funding organizations must respect the time it takes to move forward with issues that are multi-issued. While it is easy to get a consensus about single issue, and then have an event or an action to address this particular issue, issues that involve intersect take time and research to address, which may not provide reportable “actions.”

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