Building Bridges for Immigrant and Refugee Women with Disabilities

[IMAGE: Building Bridges program participants, guests, PIRS board, and staff members at the online graduating conference event on May 23rd, 2021.]

In 2020, we started a new program at PIRS to support newcomer and immigrant women with visible and invisible disabilities, to foreground their experiences through learning around communication, public speaking, resilience, and advocacy.

Together, our vision was to co-create an inclusive and accommodating learning environment for participants in the Building Bridges program, which has run since 1991. 

We were hugely supported in running this program by the Advisory Committee members: Erika Cedillo (Inclusion BC), Dave Thompson (Richmond Center for Disability), Janey Roh (Kudoz), Katrina Paddon (ITnewcom), and Serah Ghazali (Women’s Economic Council). Our heartfelt thanks go to this amazing committee! 

Six participants attended the weekly class for five months and received additional one-to-one support through information, resources, and referrals to services within and outside PIRS.  Working closely in a small group, we were able to build deep connections and understandings of individual needs and interests and to address those by providing personalized support as much as possible.

The program’s trauma-centered, flexible, and responsive approach allowed us to include relevant learning materials and bring expert guest speakers to best meet the priorities of the women. Participants appreciated the caring nature of the peer group, the opportunity to practice English language and self-expression channels and to learn public speaking, advocacy, self-care, and effective communication skills.

This exploratory project was particularly successful in providing quality support to a small group. Importantly, it also provided crucial learnings for PIRS and our staff. Implementing this program confirmed what we knew about newcomer women with disabilities encountering additional barriers to access community programs and resources, and higher hurdles against full participation in society. We grappled with the realization that emotional and moral support and accommodation often fall short. Without appropriate technological support for women with significant physical disabilities, ensuring inclusion and integration of these women is like sailing against the wind.

Although we were able to bring self-care and advocacy resources to the group, it was not possible to provide any assistive technology device to one of the visually impaired women in need.  Such devices can enhance independence and make the world more accessible for blind people; however the majority of newcomers cannot even afford these. To fill this gap, three program participants carried out a group project to explore a possible fundraising and advocacy initiative for immigrants with visual impairments in BC to have an easy access to assistive technology.

At the Graduating Conference on May 22, these women publicly shared their stories of migration and settlement, their dreams and aspirations for a more fulfilling life in Canada. They expressed commitment to find solutions and help each other as fellow human beings for it is our common humanity and humane empathy that connect us all and hold us up above all the differences.

Disability is a socially constructed discriminatory system, and it can definitely be turned into an ability to do things differently. These women’s positivity and collective power instilled hope in us for a better and just world free from any human sufferings. As one of the participants in her story quoted Saadi Shirazi, a Persian poet, who penned down so poignantly:

Human beings are members of a whole/ In creation of one essence and soul

If one member is afflicted with pain/ Other members uneasy will remain

If you have no sympathy for human pain/ The name of human you cannot retain!

We are grateful to the Disability Alliance of British Columbia for funding this important project.