By Spencer van Vloten
August 31st, 2021
President of BC People First and member of the Self-Advocate Leadership Network, Jo-Anne Gauthier is a fearless speaker and leader in BC’s self-advocacy movement. We talked with Jo-Anne about why she’s driven to make a difference, her advice for beginners in self-advocacy, and the ambitious plans she has for the future.
How did you get started in self-advocacy?
Jo-Anne: It happened around 25 years ago. I was living in Cranbrook, and a friend of mine was on the Inclusion BC board and encouraged me to get involved.I joined a self-advocacy group in Cranbrook, then with my husband Mike I became a member of BC People First, and together we worked to make Cranbrook a more welcoming place for persons with diverse abilities. We successfully advocated to have the city install mobility ramps, we helped get more wheelchair lifts, we got the city to fix sidewalks, and also to install more automatic doors.It wasn’t just about accessibility though. Helping people, in general, was our goal, and one of the other things we did was cook hundreds of meals for people living in shelters. The ball kept rolling and I’ve been able to participate in many different ways over the years.
What motivates you to be so busy as a leader in the self-advocacy movement?
Jo-Anne: Because I’ve been there, I know how others feel when they face exclusion, and I’ve always been a person who wants to help. There’s always someone who’s worse off than me. I’ve always had that passion to do whatever I could do to help. Maybe I can’t fix the whole world, but I can help someone in some way, and that motivates me to keep going.
What tips would you give to people starting in self-advocacy?
Jo-Anne: Talk to as many people as you can. Go to the city hall, meet the mayor, ask the people you meet what they’re doing to include people with diverse abilities. Join a self-advocacy group like BC People First, and surround yourself with people who support your dreams and aren’t going to make you set those aside.
Speaking is one of Jo-Anne’s passions, and she’s eager to return to it following the pandemic (photos: Jo-Anne Gauthier; Spencer van Vloten)
To all self-advocates, remember that even when things seem hard, keep on fighting, keep on standing up for yourself and for others. It’s like my favorite saying: ‘never give up. When I was born they said I wouldn’t walk or talk, but now I do both. I have a loving husband of 35 years and 2 amazing grown daughters. You can do things people say you can’t. My own tip to myself is to speak as clearly as I can so people understand me. And if they don’t want to listen, they can go somewhere else!
Tell readers about BC People First and what the group is focused on
Jo-Anne: The self-advocacy movement’s always fighting for plain language, regardless of whether it’s BC People First or other advocacy groups. Information needs to be accessible to people with diverse abilities. We also want to see youth more active in self-advocacy. BC People First has a youth group, because new blood helps strengthen the self-advocacy movement, and being involved in advocacy helps youth prepare for issues they’ll face when they transition into adulthood. And we always want to hear people’s stories. To hear the experiences and interests and ideas of self-advocates. It all contributes to the movement, and it reminds people that, while we’re all in this together as self-advocates, we’re also all unique.
There’s an election coming up. What are you asking of candidates?
Jo-Anne: Housing’s my top thing right now. There aren’t enough wheelchair-accessible apartments, and that’s why Mike and I are being forced to move out of Richmond. We need more housing that’s affordable and accessible at all levels, from single apartments to family apartments, for people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities. To make this affordable people on disability should also get extra financial support, so they can spend more on housing. We need more housing that’s affordable and accessible at all levels 2nd priority is that people with disabilities should get more help with education. I never had a chance to complete school and had to learn on my own because the government closed so many of the schools for students with disabilities and learning issues. And across society, there must be a change in how people with disabilities are treated. It doesn’t matter if someone can’t see or hear, or if they wear glasses, it shouldn’t matter. Across society, there must be a change in how people with disabilities are treated where all people, we’ve all got problems, and we should all be treated equally.
I hear that BC People First members do some excellent cooking?
Jo-Anne: We’re working on a BC People First cookbook. My recipe will be Japanese chicken, and there will be a lot of other tasty recipes. One of my favorites is Swedish dumplings! Until then, you can always get a BC People First shirt. One day I was wearing my ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ hoodie and someone stopped me to ask what it meant. I explained it to him, and he was so impressed that he’s become a supporter and even donated a few bikes for us to raffle.
What’s next for you?
Jo-Anne: I’d like to go out there and do my speaking and attend events in person again. I want to be involved in everything – housing, poverty, accessibility, rallies, conferences -everything. It’s a goal of mine to be on the People First of Canada board as well. For many years I’ve also wanted to write a book, a biographical book about what I’ve been through that helps others. Once we move I’m going to start working on it, and somehow, someday it will happen.