From awareness to action, with Yazmine Laroche

Lessons-learned from working for an inclusive Canadian public service

Hey Debriefers,

Perceptions around disability have changed so much over the past few years. But how do we go from changed attitudes to changing the way things are done?

This edition is an interview with Yazmine Laroche, the Deputy Minister responsible for bringing accessibility and inclusion to the Canadian civil service. We get into how she approaches reform of such a large system and what she's learned from it.

I saw how compelling an advocate Yazmine is when we met at the 2019 Global Business and Disability Network, hosted by the ILO in Geneva. She was the first person I heard make the shift away from “nothing about us without us” towards “nothing without us because everything is about us”:

“You need to accept that everything you do is going to affect people with lived experience of disability. That's part of how we develop the reflex [for disability inclusion]. It's this understanding that we're everywhere, we're in every aspect of life.

It doesn’t make sense to narrow the frame to say we're only going to think about talking to people with disabilities when it's specifically about accessibility.”

Yazmine is Deputy Minister for Public Service Accessibility — in Canada, Deputy Minister is the name for the senior-most civil servant in a department. She is working to implement the public service accessibility strategy that aims to bring inclusive practices across 80 departments or agencies and over 250,000 employees. As Yazmine explains, locking-in disability inclusion means changing how we do things:

“In French, the word is enraciné. It means rooted, part of the fabric. That's what I'm hoping that we will be able to build. I know it takes time and the awareness raising part is hugely important. But often people get stalled at the awareness raising stage and think, okay, we've done it. But you haven't because you haven't taken the next step, which is embedding it in your culture. There are lots of different expressions for it. We talk about ‘disability confidence’ or ‘accessibility confidence’. It takes time and requires concrete measures.”

Yazmine brings out different dimensions of developing disability inclusion. On one side is the co-development, and ensuring that people’s views and experiences are continuously incorporated. The other side is what we often call “building capacity”: identifying, developing, and selecting for the skills colleagues need to have to address these issues. This is closely linked with ensuring that systems create incentives for inclusive measures to cascade through.

Working on disability we often get put into silos, and Yazmine describes approaches that resist that. Her team brings colleagues together and motivates others, including through showing their responsibilities for action. We get into detail of how she navigates this in practice, and I think there's a lot to learn from the way she combines setting up the right processes and still engaging with people on a personal level.

Disability isn't the only social issue changing fast. Yazmine's work insists on connection with other efforts for reform of the public service, whether around racial equality or rights of indigenous peoples. As well as discussing the risks that are present, Yazmine shows how we in the disability sector can join as allies with these movements:

“Everybody's at a different stage in the process. I have spent a lot of time with groups from different communities, sharing our own lessons learned as we were developing our accessibility strategy, as we were working on disability inclusion awareness. I've got my key lessons learned and I think they're really important no matter what you're doing, if you're trying to make change happen. I don't want people to feel that they have to start from zero.”

See the full conversation below for a deep dive into all this and more. Yazmine brings out how COVID made her rethink strategy, talks about her career and how it prepared her for her current work, and reflects on younger generations of persons with disabilities are taking work forward with different expectations.

I’ll be honest, I partly (mainly?) do interviews on the newsletter as an excuse to talk to the fantastic people that work in this sector. At the end of the interview you’ll see that Yazmine uses one of her advocacy techniques on me too. As well as learning from her, I left this conversation feeling the possibility and power of what we are working for. I hope you will too.

Profile of Yazmine, a white woman with dark hair, looks to the camera, smiling widely. She wears a dark jacket on a dark purple shirt, against a dark background.
Yazmine Laroche

About the newsletter

I'm Peter Torres Fremlin, and I make Disability Debrief to understand disability in a changing world. The previous issue was a curated guide to international disability news, which included background on disability in Ukraine.

Disability Debrief is supported by readers. This edition is produced with support from CBM Global. I love when people share the newsletter or get in touch - reply, leave a comment, or find me on twitter @desibility.

Conversation with Yazmine

We spoke on zoom in January. Here's our conversation edited for clarity.

COVID “made us rethink elements of our strategy”

Peter: I was thinking about when we last met, in an international conference in 2019, where people flew in from everywhere. How have you been since then?

Yazmine: That was a great conference and it was very motivating. It was really interesting to learn what the private sector's doing and all of these great initiatives. Since then, I guess I'd say couple of things.

COVID has been a bit of a mixed blessing. I think that's the case for so many people. No more travel and no more in-person meetings with all the people who are really working in accessibility. And Zoom, which is great and it certainly transformed a lot of the ways that we do business, is not a substitute for in-person. It does give you the capacity to do much broader engagement, but there are some things that you lose, which is that kind of that in-person connection and maybe some of the informality.

On the plus side, and I'm always looking for a silver lining. What's been great for me is I've been able to create a home office, which is a wonderful place to work. It's reduced my commuting time. When you're somebody of my generation and you're doing a lot of work helping your ageing parents, having that extra time is tremendous. And I'm very relieved: I'm amazed by the speed with which vaccines were developed. And frankly, we've also been able to continue to advance the great work that we're doing on our public service accessibility strategy.

COVID made us have to adjust. It made us rethink elements of our strategy that we hadn't anticipated until COVID happened. It's been a great learning experience in terms of how strategies need to evolve, that strategies are created at moments in time based on what you know at a moment in time, but things can change. COVID highlighted for us, for example, that we hadn't put nearly enough emphasis on communications when you're talking about inclusion of people with disabilities. The biggest thing, it was like this “aha!” moment, the first weekend that we went into lockdown. Our Prime Minister and senior officials were doing press conferences. I started to get inundated on my Twitter feed by tweets from the deaf community saying, "Where's the sign language interpretation?"

Peter: Through twitter, people could contact you directly?

Yazmine: I'm happy that I'm active on Twitter because people started to contact me and so we were able to quickly mobilize and work with the people who are involved. There's a lot of people who are involved in trying to organize something like that around the Prime Minister's press conferences. But within 72 hours, we'd gotten it fixed. I think that was the first indicator that maybe we need to take another look at our strategy and our action plan.

“How do we make sure it doesn't require people complaining?”

Peter: I'm glad there were so many positive signs that have come out in this two years as well. But I think that that moment in March 2020 really showed us that we weren't as embedded as we thought we were. What was it like being in the middle of government as the priority on disability evaporated?

Yazmine: I don't think the priority on disability evaporated. In part that’s because of the launch of the Accessible Canada Act and its coming into force in 2019, and then the creation of my office to focus on what we are doing from a public service perspective. There was so much awareness raising that was happening. So even though accessibility might not have been the first instinct, it was much easier to get people's attention because of the awareness raising that had happened. For me, it was a measure that we have made some progress. I know that's kind of a funny way to get at it, but I did feel that it demonstrated while the reflex wasn't necessarily there at the very beginning, the desire to move quickly was, as soon as it had been highlighted.

Now what we’re focusing on is how we develop that reflex. How do we make sure it doesn't require people complaining? I think that is the biggest challenge for disability inclusion anywhere: that it just becomes part of the way we do things and it is not an afterthought. In too many instances, it's still an afterthought. That was a very important lesson learned and highlighted that we've made progress, but this is where we need to go now. It requires a multi-pronged approach and, as we know, it's not something that's going to happen overnight.

Nothing without us, because everything is about us

Peter: I’m excited to explore how that instinct can be developed today. Let’s contextualize it in terms of how you frame the goal. You’ve simplified “Nothing about us without us” to “Nothing without us”. I remember you saying this was because “everything is about us”. What does that mean?

Yazmine: I have to credit to Minister Carla Qualtrough, who coined that phrase. I remember in one of my first meetings with her, she said, "We need to change the way we think about this. It was great that the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities has at its heart this idea that you can't do things for disabled people, on behalf of people with disabilities, if you're not actually including them in the process." It was that idea of co-creation, that you can't make things better for any marginalized community if you're not including them as part of the process. And yet, so often, as we know in the world of disability inclusion, what happens is very well intentioned, people say, “I'm going to fix this” but they don't bother to consult. And then we end up with imperfect outcomes.

So I understand totally where “nothing about us without us” came from. But Minister Qualtrough was saying, "We can become trapped in a mindset, which is that we only talk to people with disabilities when we're talking about things related to accessibility." And when you're talking about 20% of the world's population you need to accept that everything you do is going to affect people with lived experience of disability. That's part of how we develop the reflex. It's this understanding that we're everywhere, we're in every aspect of life.

It doesn’t make sense to narrow the frame to say we're only going to think about talking to people with disabilities when it's specifically about accessibility. I think about this great quote when I was visiting Microsoft headquarters in the times before COVID. They have this great sign on their wall that says, “When you do not intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude.” That really is the illustration of it: to be inclusive of people with disabilities you need to be intentional in everything that you, because otherwise you're going to get things wrong. It's this idea of seeing us as just part of the broader community. Of course we need to be included and of course we need to be engaged because we're everywhere.

Peter: That's really interesting. Because “nothing about us” can lead people down the wrong expectation: when it comes to ramps, I'll ask you. But other stuff, no need. “Nothing without us” short-circuits the potential wrong direction and gets to the deeper point, engaging disabled people in the way our societies are designed to run.

Yazmine: There's been some interesting work coming from around the world. I think about UN COSP [Conference of the State Parties] discussions where, for example, we're thinking about climate change and why wouldn't you want to think about climate change in the context of people with lived experience of disability? Of course it's going to have consequences for people with lived experiences. So why wouldn't you make that part of your consultation and engagement? There was a great conference on disasters and emergency preparedness. Of course you have to think about what it means for people with disabilities.

I'm thinking about the rapid pullout by the American forces from Afghanistan. And a lot of work that was being done behind the scenes to try and make sure that people with disabilities were actually going to be able to get out of the country if they wanted to leave. And again, it's how do we develop that reflex so that no matter what we're dealing with, people with disabilities are not an afterthought?

We certainly saw that in COVID. At the beginning of COVID when you see the deaths among people living in congregate settings. And a lot of people with disabilities get warehoused in long term care facilities and different kinds of congregate settings. Part of the challenge that we have right now is how do we change that mindset?

“It’s a different conversation now.”

Peter: Let's get deeper into that. Your report on progress describes this phase as moving from awareness to action. We’ve gotten people saying what we want them to be saying, but we haven't necessarily got them doing what we want them to do. People with disabilities are not necessarily feeling a tangible impact of these commitments. Tell me more about this phase.

Yazmine: Oh, my goodness. Well, I could use up our entire conversation on this. So I've been three years in this job. I spent the first six months going everywhere and doing engagement and awareness raising. Listening to people with lived experience and engaging decision makers, academia, other governments and the private sector. And when I brought it back into the public sector context, what the conversation sounded like was, “I don't know anything about this. Please tell me about it.”

It's a different conversation now. The conversation now is “I'm in. So tell me what I need to do.” And that's progress. Success will be when people aren't asking “tell me what to do”, when you don't need a dedicated group of people to drive this kind of initiative, when it's embedded, when it's just the way we do business, that's when I will declare success.

“Often people get stalled at the awareness raising stage”

Peter: You mean when other departments don't have to reach out to you in this centralized position, because they have that capacity built in, they know how to do it. They have the links with disabled people directly and they don't need to ask you and your small team?

Yazmine: Exactly. In French, the word is enraciné. It means rooted, part of the fabric. That's what I'm hoping that we will be able to build. I know it takes time and the awareness raising part is hugely important. But often people get stalled at the awareness raising stage and think, okay, we've done it. But you haven't because you haven't taken the next step, which is embedding it in your culture. There are lots of different expressions for it. We talk about “disability confidence” or “accessibility confidence”. It takes time and requires concrete measures.

A couple of things that have really struck me. You can never stop the co-development and the constant inclusion and listening to people with lived experience. That's why one of the most interesting things about the Accessible Canada legislation is that it requires people to develop a mechanism by which they will constantly get feedback on their progress. Often we'll create important legislation and we'll say, okay, off you go, and you come back and give us an evaluation every five years. Rarely do you see an explicit requirement to have feedback mechanisms, which is critical in policy making and program delivery. You need to learn as you're going.

The other part of it is developing competencies around accessibility and disability inclusion. We're doing some interesting work with different occupational groups in the public service to start to develop that. What does a competency around accessibility and disability inclusion look like if you're an HR practitioner? If you’re responsible for government procurement or if you work in what we call “real property”, anything to do with the built environment? What does it look like if you’re an IT specialist?

If we're saying we want people with these kinds of skills and competencies, then the people who are helping to develop those individuals and those different professional categories will see, ah, this is a hard skillset, we need to make sure that we're actually developing people with these competencies and skills. It sends a strong message that these are actually valued skills and you then start to see the ripple effect that happens. Again, these things don't happen overnight.

It's the same thing with procurement. We know that we are going to have to make sure that all of the goods that we procure are accessible. That sends a strong message to vendors that they have to start making things that will meet our standards. And what I'm hoping will happen is that people will see this as a tremendous business opportunity. It's a very competitive world in terms of who's got the best product, why wouldn't there be that same kind of brand attached to who's making the most accessible products?

I'm hoping that Canadian industry will see the accessibility space as a business advantage and something that can brand Canadian businesses around the world. I'm excited that businesses are starting to move in this direction. That's way outside my mandate in the public service, but I love seeing these kind of ripples. This is how a movement spreads broadly throughout society.

And again, that shift that goes from "we're doing this to help those poor disabled people, they are so deserving of our pity." To "oh, my goodness, this is an amazing business opportunity and why wouldn't we want to go there? This is actually going to help us compete globally." I think that's the kind of change that is so exciting to see.

Peter: Sometimes people think inclusion is something that can be done once and then it’ll be finished. I love how you’re showing the many dimensions of this phase. You’re talking about that continuing engagement, putting it in the fabric, the incentives.

“How you manage a process is important in terms of outcomes.”

Peter: I’d love to hear how you navigate it in practice. You are contacting a lot of departments and they have a lot of existing priorities. The issue of capacity as well: people are asking you for solutions but there’s no reason that you should know the specifics in all areas. What’s working in navigating this phase of awareness to action and what's not working?

Yazmine: I'm a public service geek. And so my answer may not be sexy, but I think it's really, really important: governance. How you manage a process is important in terms of outcomes. You mentioned it, Peter, my group is very small. We're 18 people and the public service is 260,000 employees, 80 different departments and agencies across a vast country. It's impossible for a group of 18 people to make that change on its own. But it's not impossible to work with and through others.

Governance is important. For example, one of the first things I did was I set up a committee, the Deputy Ministers' Accessibility Group. I asked people to join it who had the accountabilities for different areas of our strategy. So the Chief Information Officer is a member of the group. The Chief Human Resources Officer is a member of the group. The Comptroller General, who's responsible for all of the policies that govern procurement, the built environment, lots of things, a really key partner. The Deputy Minister who heads the organization that provides all of our IT services is a member. The Deputy Minister, whose department is responsible for all of our purchasing, is a member.

We wanted to make sure that people who actually had the policy responsibilities and the implementation responsibilities were part of this key group from the beginning, because that's how you start to move from awareness to action. And that's how you start to root it because people start to see that, “Oh, this is part of my responsibilities.”

Peter: It's putting the ball in their court?

Yazmine: Yes, exactly. Ultimately I don't own any policies for IT or any of the procurement policies. You need the people who have the levers and the power to be part of your team. Because my team is only going to be here for a few more years, we don't have a permanent mandate, so it has to become embedded.

We have different advisory and engagement committees at every level. We have technical working groups made up of all kinds of employees who are actually identifying what are the actions that we need to be taking. And of course, this is all informed by an 80 or so member committee, a Persons with Disabilities committee. They provide regular and constant input and feedback on what we're doing.

What’s interesting about what's happening now is because I've got these key Deputy Ministers around my table, they are now having these conversations at their own governance committee meetings. I'm going to use a word that can be pejorative at times: it's “normalizing”. In other words, it's making accessibility a regular part of the conversation. There's a huge Deputy Minister committee on IT and service delivery and now they are starting to routinely have these conversations around accessibility. These are the kinds of things that let me know that it is starting to get rooted.

“You have to meet people where they are.”

Peter: I'm also a policy geek and love a good committee meeting. I’m interested in how you respond when colleagues are taking initial actions but they’re not embedded. For example if they think they’re acting on disability but they’re only taking a small localized action. How do you do the mixture of congratulating them, but calling them out?

Yazmine: You have to meet people where they are. You always have to acknowledge progress where it's happening and then you have to encourage people to do more. “Well, that was a good start. So where are you going to go from here? And how are you going to roll this out? And how are you going to make it bigger?” It would depend on the situation. There are times where I will just call people up and say you can do so much better and you should aim higher.

Peter: You put it positively…?

Yazmine: It depends on the circumstances. There may be times where I'll be less positive where I will express my disappointment. I'm not going to name any names, but I had a colleague who put out a document. They were updating all of the competencies in an important occupational group in the public service. And I read the document and I immediately called my colleague and said, "This is great that you're doing this, how come I never saw any reference to accessibility or disability inclusion in these new capacities and competencies?" And my colleague, to their credit said, "Oh, my God. What a gaffe, we're going back to the drawing board." And they did.

So much of what we do is based on the relationships that we've built, which allows us, it gives me the ability to speak candidly with colleagues, always respectfully. But I do see that as part of my mandate and I hope that our update report captures some of that where we acknowledge progress where it's been made, but also acknowledge that much more needs to be done.

And I can be a bit of a nag sometimes, Peter. I warn my colleagues, "You will get tired of hearing me say things, but that's because they still need to be said." I always encourage people to do more and to do better. And I always ask, "Why wouldn't you want to do something like this? Why is this not important?" I think that's a really good question to ask people, “why is this not important?”

Peter: Do you get an answer to that?

Yazmine: Well, no, because there isn't a good answer to that. It’s a really good question to ask people, “tell me why this is not important?” What you might get sometimes is, "Well, it's just because we're so busy, we're so preoccupied." And it's like, "Yeah, but you can do two things simultaneously. We don't have to be so linear." You help people aspire to be better.

Peter: Thank you for sharing such practical ways to navigate because you're clearly a very skilled advocate.

“Take an intersectional lens to it”

Peter: It's not just us on the awareness to action journey. Around the world the movement against racial equality is raising awareness and perhaps more than us. And in Canada with indigenous peoples, the level of awareness and work has skyrocketed in the past years.

Peter: How do we align our journey, make sure that we are respecting those areas, and that we are in those emerging conversations? To make sure that efforts for reform aren't us reforming this on Mondays and that on Wednesdays and never the twain shall meet?

Yazmine: That is a great question. And it's something that we have been really focusing on, particularly in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. And also the discovery of all of those unmarked graves of indigenous children across our country. There are conversations happening throughout the public service, not just at the senior levels, but right throughout the public service that we have never had before. And that's a good thing.

I remember having a conversation with a very senior public servant about a year and a half ago as the public service was starting to mobilize and get itself organized to say, okay, what are we going to do? What are we going to do differently? I said to this very senior public servant, “Please make sure that if you're having these conversations around discrimination and exclusion, that you are including disability. Because the worst thing that could happen is that we start to create a hierarchy of exclusion and that we send a message that we can only focus on one thing at a time.”

And so there was a lot of deliberate work done right from the beginning to make sure that the conversations were framed in a broader way, talking about we have a history in this country of exclusion and discrimination and it expresses itself in many different ways. And many different Canadians have been affected by this and we need to do better. So that's a start.

Then I think you need to talk about two things that are really important. One is intersectionality and the other is allyship. We've seen a lot of momentum in the last couple of years, with public servants coming together and creating their own networks and their own movements. Everybody's at a different stage in the process. I have spent a lot of time with groups from different communities, sharing our own lessons learned as we were developing our accessibility strategy, as we were working on disability inclusion awareness. I've got my key lessons learned and I think they're really important no matter what you're doing, if you're trying to make change happen.

I don't want people to feel that they have to start from zero. Why wouldn't we share everything that we've learned? A year ago, my committee of Persons with Disabilities sponsored a huge virtual town hall on allyship. It was a moderated discussion with four Deputy Ministers, each one of us representing a different marginalized community, talking about our own experience and the value of allyship. We had 4,000 people sign up for that seminar.

It was important that it was the community of people with disabilities that sponsored it because my motto is disability does not discriminate, it doesn't care what your ethnic background is. It doesn't care about religion, where you were born, what your gender is, or about sexual orientation. It doesn't care. Disability can and will happen to anybody.

When you take an intersectional lens to it, we do know that people who belong to multiple disadvantaged communities experience extra hardship and exclusion. And so I feel that it's really important that we find ways to integrate these initiatives.

“I worry that we're forcing people to choose”

I'll talk about two risks that I see. One is we start to force people to choose one identity, right? So I'm a person with a disability or I'm Black or I'm Muslim. I worry that we're forcing people to choose, as opposed to recognizing that humans are complex individuals with identity that's made up of multiple strands. How do we acknowledge that and value that? I'm incredibly proud of my Latina heritage on my mother's side, who's Colombian. But on my father's side, we're Quebecois, going back centuries. And I'm very proud of that too. I don't want to have to choose. I want to recognize that I have attachment and I have feelings of belonging in many different communities and I never want to lose that. So that's the one risk of trying to force people into a little box.

The other risk is that we force people to compete against each other. This is a risk in any large organization, which has a hard time attending to more than one priority at a time. A risk that we would force people who've been suffering and experiencing discrimination for a really long time to have to compete with each other for resources or for attention or for action. That's why I think allyship is so important.

If we do something on behalf of racialized minorities, we should all be celebrating because it's going to make things better for everybody. And if we eliminate barriers for people with disabilities, then everybody should be celebrating because we're making things better for everybody. That is so fundamental to me and it is something I have invested a lot of time and energy on over the last year. And it's something that I will continue to push and push and push.

Peter: I love that while allyship is often a superficial word, you've taken it in a much deeper sense. Like the initiative that you did, allyship can be a way to bring efforts and different identities and different groups together.

“I spent much of my career not being involved in anything to do with disability.”

Peter: I want to be a bit cheeky and ask a question that is relevant to me personally. We both have Muscular Dystrophy-family disabilities. You've been very active in Muscular Dystrophy Canada. Most of my work has been with disability as an umbrella, and I was wondering if I should double back to engage with the Muscular Dystrophy side. I often struggled to connect with it as it was based on medical issues and quite an assistentialist approach. It would be interesting to hear how you’ve navigated this and any advice you might give.

Yazmine: Well, I didn't get involved until I was older and more established in my career. I spent much of my career not being involved in anything to do with disability. I was very worried, it's so easy to stereotype people. If you look at the people running a lot of the diversity initiatives anywhere, they tend to be people from, and I'm using air quotes, “diverse communities”. I wanted to prove myself as somebody who was a really great public servant, who could do any job in the public service. Hence, I did many, many, many different jobs throughout my career. Because I'm always hungry to learn and I get bored really easily. But also I did not want to be typecast. I felt very strongly about that.

As I got older, and as I advanced in my career, I started to realize two things. There wasn't anybody else like me in the public service that I could see. And I had an opportunity to make a difference in the public service, but also outside the public service. For example, I remember we did a lot of funding for arts organizations. And I asked the person responsible for some of the programming "Why wouldn't we insist that if we're going to fund an organization, that they make sure that their facilities are accessible?" That was the start of a conversation that I'd never had before in the public service. I realized that you can actually be a force for change. So I started to get more involved and speak up in the public service context.

I went to a conference one year about Muscular Dystrophy and I reconnected with people. In fact I was recruited. The then chair of Muscular Dystrophy Canada said to me, "I think you should join Muscular Dystrophy Canada. Wouldn't you like to be on our board?" And I remember thinking maybe now is a good time because I thought it was important that somebody who'd had a successful career and who lives with one of the hundreds of Muscular Dystrophies that there are, take a place on a board to help shape the future of an organization.

The organization itself was going through a really interesting change because they were observing what had changed again in the environment with respect to Muscular Dystrophy since its founding in 1950. The biggest change was that the bulk of the members are now adults who are living with Muscular Dystrophies, and that caused a huge reflection. [The organization had started work focused on children with Muscular Dystrophies who often had had shorter life expectancies].

And I started to work on the new strategic plan for the organization, which was all about taking into account this huge shift: it's about how do we make sure that people are going to live the best possible lives and be equipped to make their best possible contributions. And that's something, for me, it's fundamental. And it's an organization I feel is a wonderful organization doing great things. So I'm happy to continue my relationship with them.

If you're going to do any kind of volunteer work, I think it's really important that you feel a connection and passion for what that organization is doing. It doesn't matter what it is. I was the chair of the board a few years ago, and I'm on their governance committee because, as I mentioned, I'm really interested in governance.

And in my public service role, likewise, this is my full-time job now: trying to make things better for public servants and for Canadians with disabilities receiving services from the public service. I'm very happy I did not have a career as a diversity or disability specialist. That might be great for somebody else, but it wasn't great for me. There were so many different things I wanted to do. Working for the Canadian Public Service is a tremendous privilege and I've just had the ability to do amazing things. I look back on my career with a lot of pride and satisfaction, and I think this current job is a kind of culmination of everything that I've done. It allows me to harness everything that I've learned and the relationships that I've cultivated to really try and make a difference for people with disabilities. So I've had an unusual career maybe, but it's been a very satisfying one.

Peter: That's interesting on lots of levels and that you yourself were an embodiment of that change of the position of people with muscular dystrophies in society.

“There's real teeth now, real changes happening”

Peter There's so much more we could talk about, and it's a blessing to speak to you, warming and motivating. To wrap up, are there any final reflections that you'd like to share with us?

Yazmine: I have lots of reflections. I can look at this many ways. In my dark moments, I will say it's 2022, why are we still having to make the case to hire people with disabilities? To make the case to support people with disabilities to live their best and richest lives? That's in my dark days. I'm a very impatient person and maybe that's where some of my darker days come from.

But then when I see the progress that we're making. We have legislation in Canada now and the first regulations have come into force. These are the regulations that will require the organization that's covered by this legislation to develop their accessibility plans with that requirement for that feedback loop. There's real teeth now, real changes happening, standards are being developed. We have this wonderful organization called Accessibility Standards Canada.

Change is happening and it is starting to get embedded. When I have colleagues who are calling me to say, “Oh, I just did this big session with my team. And we're looking at how do we do more targeted recruitment of people with disabilities into this professional category, because we know that we have gaps we need to fill and we really want to do that.” I'm very, very excited by that.

When I look at the people who are doing such interesting work. You interviewed Caroline Casey, for example. Caroline is just the most amazing human being. And when I see somebody with that passion and how she's driving the conversation among these huge global corporations, that gives me cause to be optimistic.

And then when I think about the younger generation that's coming up of people with disabilities, I get so motivated by them because they see the world differently. Maybe I'm talking mostly from the Canadian context. From kindergarten right through to post-secondary, we've put a lot of energy as a country into making it easier for people with disabilities to be part of the educational system. As these people are graduating, they have a very different mindset. Their assumption is inclusion. Their assumption is that they will be part of whatever's going on.

I look at somebody like Maayan Ziv. And I don't know if you've interviewed Maayan yet, but boy, you should because she is astonishing. She's an entrepreneur. She had her own photography business. She's launched this incredible app called AccessNow. It started as a way of crowdsourcing the accessibility of different facilities and is now turning into this amazing tool to mine data, to analyze and to determine how to make communities better.

They see the world differently and they see their lived experience as a distinct opportunity. And it's that which gives me the most hope: we have raised a generation of people who simply will not settle for being second class citizens. And as more people like that start to get engaged politically, I'm hoping that we're going to see more people with disabilities in public office and climbing the ranks of the public service and the corporate world. That's how we're going to embed this change. We will no longer need small teams like mine trying to make things better. That's why I'm optimistic.

Peter: Thank you, Yazmine, for giving us reason to be optimistic and to be paving the way for others to build on that. It's such a pleasure to interact with you.

Yazmine: Thank you, Peter. I'm delighted to spend some quality time with you. I love reading what you're up to. I think it's a great initiative and I know you've got over a thousand subscribers now. That's really good. Let's see if we can't get that up to 5,000. Let's throw the gauntlet down.

Peter: This is the trick that you play on your colleagues: What about doing five times what you are already doing? I'm honored to receive that. Thank you, Yazmine.

Further reading

For more about Yazmine, see her official profile and find her on twitter @YazmineLaroche.

For more on the context on how the Government of Canada is working on disability: The Accessible Canada Act came into force in 2019. The public service strategy “Nothing Without Us” is the strategy for how the Government promotes accessibility in the public service. There was a progress report from last year, “Making it Real”, which discusses how the public service is changing. It's a progress report worth reading and where I took the “from awareness to action” tagline from.

For more conversations on how we make inclusion real, this conversation reminded me of the interview with Stefan Tromel, also on changing organizations from the inside: “we are not the disability police”. Yazmine mentioned the interview with  Caroline Casey on inclusion in the private sector. And the last interview we hosted was with Jennifer Madans on data and what the 15% means.


Warm thanks to Yazmine for sharing this conversation with us. A special mention to Glen Hayes who helped prepare and coordinate a conversation nearly a year in the making. Thanks also to Stephanie Austin for getting things over the line, and to Cameron Graham who helped me think through the questions to ask.

Thanks to support from readers that powers Disability Debrief, including new contributions from T.P., Heather, Hisham and Erin. Many thanks to CBM Global's support to this edition. And to Tan Kuan Aw for the newsletter logo.

These newsletters are produced by me, Peter Torres Fremlin. Any opinions or mistakes are mine.

I will need your help if I'm to get to 5,000 subscribers: do share this conversation with your friends who might be interested! Until next time,