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Monday, August 11, 2014

An Interview with Tammy Bernasky

Tammy Bernasky
      We met Tammy at the Pacific Rim International Conference on Disability and Diversity in Honolulu. Her passion for her work is so vibrant that we couldn't wait to share it with you.

1.    C
ould you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada. I have a fantastic family back home who are incredibly important to me. I’m very close to them (my parents, sister, niece and two nephews, as well as lots of extended family). As an extrovert, I love learning about people and getting to know them and hearing their stories. I’d say I’m a very curious, optimistic and philosophical person. I love to laugh and smile a lot!

I have a passion for learning. I received a master’s degree in political science in 2004 and immediately jumped into my first overseas volunteer placement in The Gambia.  I subsequently did two other placements in Sierra Leone and Tanzania. I spent a little over five incredibly rewarding years working with the Coady International Institute – a leadership education institute for development professionals with a focus on community driven initiatives. Part of my role was to bring attention to disability issues in the development context. I worked with the most genuine, kind and dedicated people a person could ask for.

Toronto Skyline at night.
I moved to Toronto last year to  follow my passion - to build my life’s work around disability rights and inclusion and working on creating positive perceptions of disability. This led me to the master’s program at York University. 

2.      You are currently a MA student of Critical Disability Studies at York University in Toronto. How do you like the program?

This program has really deepened my understanding of disability rights.  I appreciate the range of experiences and interests of the professors in the program.  I’ve really enjoyed the course work and getting to know my classmates.  We’re a dynamic group with different opinions and experiences and I’ve benefited greatly from the diversity in the classroom. This program has really pushed me to think more critically about disability rights and inclusion. I’m incredibly happy to be part of it.

3.      Could you please tell us about your passion in regards to the perception of disability and how perceptions are shaped?

My priority is  to challenge misleading and false perceptions of disability. I live with cerebral palsy and as such I have a visible, physical disability. My parents always encouraged me to do the things I wanted to do. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t capable of something and so I approached life with a positive perspective.  I have never really faced extreme barriers. I have had many opportunities in life and have made the most of them.  All children should have that same experience of being supported in who they are – to be treated with dignity and respect.  I think it is equally important to challenge societal perceptions of people with disabilities. When people have limited experience with something they tend to jump to conclusions and this is what leads to inappropriate perceptions of disability.

4.      Why are you interested in working with women and children in particular on changing perceptions toward disability ?

I am interested particularly in working with children because I feel that changing perceptions must start early in life.  Children must learn from a young age that they are valuable, contributing members of society who deserve equal access to things like education, public spaces, community events, etc. If children learn this from a young age, they will grow up to be the ones who drive change in their own communities, rather than have external influences trying to create change for people with disabilities.  Empowerment must come from within the community and within the individual.                               

I am interested in working with women, particularly mothers, because mothers are often responsible for many essential aspects of a child’s life and in some contexts mothers are ‘blamed’ or treated differently if their child has a disability.  They too must be empowered to create change in their own lives and to understand that having a child with disability does not mean that she or her family are being punished or cursed.  Women with disabilities also face additional challenges simply for being women. For example, they are more likely to experience abuse and violence than women without disabilities, are more likely to be unemployed and have fewer educational opportunities than men with a disability and women without a disability.

5.      What would you like to see in terms of disability inclusion in international development?

Disability inclusion within international development is a difficult ideal to unpack because it is often defined and influenced by international development organizations. The thing about disability is that it is diverse. The disability community is not a homogenous group. Disability intersects with many other factors such as culture, race, gender, class, age, and where one sits on that diverse spectrum influences his or her needs and experiences.  My ideal for disability inclusive development would be that people with disabilities are fully involved in the development of their communities. This means identifying development needs from within rather than having external players influencing the development agenda.  At the same time, I think we are still at a stage in the disability movement where a twin track approach to inclusion is most effective. That is, development programs must mainstream disability policies in order to create long term change, but I also think that disability-specific programs need to be developed and implemented in communities (by people with disabilities themselves) to address unique needs and concerns in order to ensure more swift and effective progress in the meantime. 

6.      We heard that you are the creator of "Telling People Good Things Day" on September 17. Please tell us more about it!

Several years ago I learned of the passing of a friend from school. I remember thinking how nice he was. Then I realized I never took the time to tell him that. I thought it would be neat to create an event on Facebook.  It would be a day where people could tell each other good things and  it would be a good reason to say all those nice things to people that you might not say otherwise. I started posting the event in 2008. Last year we had 1,041 people join the event. I really just wanted people to tell each other good things, as simple as that sounds. We all feel good when people share positive thoughts with us and so why not make a day of it?  So, that is what I did. You can join the event on Facebook and not even have to go anywhere special to participate.  It is sort of just a commitment to make it a point to tell people good things wherever you are on September 17. Thanks so much for asking me about it.    

You can find the Facebook page at:

Thanks, Tammy!