Creating Bridges Where Barriers Once Stood

July 29, 2016 | Kristin Duquette

What value can a human being provide to others? I constantly ask myself this question as I’m attentively observing how we all interact with each other. Over the years, in addition to recently speaking at the United Nations, I’ve come to the conclusion that value can stream from our words and voices.

I had the privilege to speak at the United Nations Headquarters on July 15th for the World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement. My topic focused on community engagement, particularly with young women with disabilities, in relation to sport development. With only a few weeks’ notice, a speech was written, travel logistics completed, and off I went to share the stage with Ms. Daniela Bias, the UN Director of Economic and Affairs, UN Assistant- Secretary Generals Mr. Montiel and Ms. Puri along with two field experts, Mr. Graeff and Mr. Perlin. That’s quite a starting line-up!

Launch of the World Youth Report entitled “Youth Civic Engagement” (organized by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA)) - Kristin Duqeutte, 5x American Paralympic Record Holder, former US Team Captain for the 2010 Greek Open, and 3x Junior National Record Holder in swimming gives her remarks.

Launch of the World Youth Report entitled “Youth Civic Engagement”
(organized by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA))
– Kristin Duqeutte, 5x American Paralympic Record Holder, former US Team Captain for the 2010 Greek Open, and 3x Junior National Record Holder in swimming gives her remarks.

In the words of the United Nations, “the World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement explores young people’s participation in economic, political and community life, responding to growing interest in, and an increased policy focus on, youth civic engagement in recent years among Governments, young people and researchers. The Report provides thematic insights on economic, political and community engagement, coupled with expert opinion pieces so as to provide robust and varied perspectives into youth engagement.” For the 2016 Launch, Chapter 4 of the Report discusses youth civic engagement and highlights the use of sport development as a tool to assist vulnerable groups, particularly young women and people with disabilities, in overcoming barriers.

Regarding the disability community and sport engagement, the report authors state, “Involving young persons with disabilities in sporting activities challenges what communities think about disability while also challenging the perceptions those with disabilities may have about themselves. In doing so, stigma and discrimination are reduced, and the skills, confidence and potential of youth with disabilities are realized. In addition, sporting activities can provide a meeting ground for young people with and without dis-abilities to come together in a positive environment, learn from each other, and help eradicate preconceived notions of disability by focusing attention on the varying abilities of all youth.”

Saying that it was an honor to speak about this issue and provide recommendations to the UN system is an understatement. I am a former athlete in the Paralympic Movement and a human rights major. My honors senior thesis focused on whether disability rights are viewed as human rights on a global level with particular focus on Article 30.5 (to encourage physical activity and sport) of the CRPD. Needless to say, I was honored to share my personal experiences, combined with research on the importance of physical activity and sports for young girls and women relative to community civic engagement. To put it simply, I’m deeply grateful to have provided my voice regarding an influential topic on a global stage.

More on the The World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement here.

As those of us with disabilities know, the disability experience can be like a rollercoaster ride – highs and lows. Acceptance is often interspersed with intolerance. For example, during my flight back from the United Nations to DC an older couple asked me to “get up and move” from my aisle seat so they could sit down next to me (in the middle and window seats). Without a beat I stated how I cannot stand nor walk. Once seated and situated, the couple eventually decided to move to a different row. Looking back on this situation, I felt personally disrespected but more so embarrassed for their narrow mindedness and how they viewed a person with a disability. I was someone similar to them and so many others on that flight who was simply trying to make her way home.

Although we live in an exciting time with societal changes which better the disability community, we’re still experiencing a paradox-like world. In one atmosphere, people with disabilities are celebrated for their talents, accepted, and equally engaged with others, while in another, those same persons experience ablest comments ostracizing them for who they inherently are.

What I love most about the disability community, however, is our ability to speak our minds while creating bridges where barriers once stood. Whether on an international level at the United Nations or at a table in a restaurant, I’ve learned that my voice matters. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I was given from my mentors and role models within the disability community is to bring light to issues on all levels in order for all of us to collectively unify, acknowledge, and own our identity and experiences. We all can continue to teach those willing to engage and listen, especially those in the next generation. They are the ones we can count on to respect the people who occupy the aisle seats in life.

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Kristin Duquette is a former AAPD Summer Intern.

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