Abilities Expo 2022: Connecting community in the midst of a pandemic

ConnecTra Society showcases events, speakers, and resources for the disabled community

people in wheelchairs approaching vendors and the people stationed at them at the Abilities Expo 2022. Everyone appears to be genuinely connecting, with big smiles on their faces.
The Expo reminded disability community members they don’t have to navigate difficult things alone. The Disability Foundation

By: Olivia Visser, Staff Writer

Being disabled can be isolating. From having a limited capacity for events to experiencing accessibility barriers, disabled people often find themselves disconnected from community. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this disconnect for many disabled people, which is what ConnecTra Society addressed with their annual Abilities Expo, hosted on May 25 at Roundhouse Community Centre.

Following a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the in-person event was themed “Reconnect.” It hosted vendors, speakers, and other various attractions centring people with disabilities. 

As a disabled person myself, I had never heard of the event before, which is perhaps a testament to the aforementioned disconnect. It was encouraging to see so many community members in the same space together. The event was also streamed online for those unable to attend in-person. Much of the Expo’s programming shared relevant resources to help people with unmet support needs: here are the ones that stood out to me!

Pain BC

Not everyone realizes how hard it is to find adequate diagnosis, treatment, and support for pain-related conditions. Pain BC provides multidisciplinary resources for people experiencing chronic pain. Among other programs, they offer a pain support line, which is so important. Speaking from experience, regular crisis lines aren’t always equipped to provide support for chronic pain because it often can’t be controlled at will. This is why chronic pain requires its own targeted approach, which the line offers by providing an understanding ear and specific information about pain-management and pain-related health services. 

TrailRiders by British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society (BCMOS)

Another area where disabled people lack support is accessing outdoor spaces: for people with mobility aids, this can often feel impossible. To help increase this access, BCMOS provides disabled people with low-cost buying or rental options for TrailRiders (wheelchairs for backcountry). When I asked a BCMOS volunteer about how well the TrailRider performs in rugged conditions, he pointed to a photo of hikers on the trail to Black Tusk in Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh. He said, “The sky is the limit: if you can push yourself, then you can go anywhere.” I think it’s incredible that BCMOS is expanding access to places that able-bodied people also struggle to reach. According to their website, TrailRider has helped disabled people reach locations like the Grand Canyon, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Everest Base Camp. 

Disability Foundation’s Youth Leadership Initiative 

Despite existing resources, there is still a long way to go in terms of supporting young people with disabilities. One example of a project addressing this need is Disability Foundation’s Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI), a “three-year project led by and for youth with disabilities” as described in their brochure. YLI has conducted research that found only “56% of youth with disabilities are confident in their ability to perform tasks as well as colleagues without disabilities.” A national Youth Advisory Committee will be formed after the research is complete, aimed towards finding a solution “to support employers and youth.” YLI is currently seeking volunteers to assist them in their project. 

“Road Trip Camping: How I Accidentally Regained my Confidence,” by Ryan Clarkson

This speech by Ryan Clarkson, peer support program coordinator for Spinal Cord Injury BC’s GF Strong Centre, meant a lot to me. As a disabled backpacker who has had my fair share of difficulties in the backcountry, I often wonder how much longer I’ll be able to continue doing all of the activities I enjoy. Clarkson adapted his camping strategies after his injury in 2009 but does not dial back on adventure! He spoke about making the transition from traveling abroad to solo camping locally due to his injury. Since then, he has traveled around 160,000 kilometres by himself. Clarkson showed the audience a pop-up tent that unfolded itself into assembly and shared his “five-day-rule” for emergency supplies. What resonated with me the most was when he said, “I try and find where that line is, push it, go there, tip a toe over it, and just keep increasing that line.” I haven’t backpacked in a while for illness-related concerns, but I don’t think I’ll give up on it just yet. Hearing Clarkson speak reminded me that you don’t need to give up on your hobbies when you’re disabled, you can just do them differently. 

As a disabled person, I know there are services out there for me, but discovering and navigating them can be difficult. Abilities Expo 2022 was an opportunity to explore genuinely valuable resources. The event is expected to return next year, and until then, you can check out ConnecTra’s other initiatives and events on their website.