Advocating for persons living with disabilities, human rights student wins award

Phillip Bernard Turcotte’s advocacy work on behalf of persons with disabilities is the basis of why he was awarded the 2014 Dr. John Davis Burton Award.(Susan Hickman Photo)

Over the four years he studied at Carleton, Phillip Bernard Turcotte noted a change in the words used in reference to people with disabilities.

“The language has changed from talking about ‘accommodation’ to encompass broader terms such as ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion,’ says Turcotte, who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 2013, with highest honours in human rights and minors in law and political science.

Turcotte himself had much to do with increasing awareness, equality and integration of persons with disabilities in the education community. And, on Nov. 6, in recognition of his efforts, he receives the Dr. John Davis Burton Award that honours the legacy of a champion for the disabled.

“There will always be a need for individual accommodation,” says Turcotte, “but we need to move towards diversity and inclusion by looking at how we structure things, why we build buildings in a particular way, and why we assume students will learn things in a particular way. Why do we exclude diversity rather than welcome it?”

As a student living with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities, Turcotte learned to advocate for himself early on.

“I wanted to be part of the dialogue when my parents met my teachers to discuss my academic accommodation. Often, when you have an open dialogue, everyone becomes comfortable.”

Turcotte’s initial positive welcome at Carleton coloured his entire experience on campus and allowed him to pursue advocacy work on behalf of students living with disabilities. He volunteered as a student ambassador for the Paul Menton Centre’s Make the Cut program, a transition program for high school students living with learning disabilities, and he completed the Carleton University Equity Service’s intensive Allies in Equity Program, launching a poster campaign with his colleagues to raise awareness about unconscious biases on campus.

However, he is most proud of his research into the social, legal and political frameworks that motivated the sterilization of persons living with disabilities in Alberta from 1928 to 1972. The results will be published in a book on disabled histories in Canada.

Now, in his second year in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, Turcotte continues his advocacy work within the legal community while studying social justice, law reform and non-adversarial conflict resolution. He also sits on the Accessibility Advisory Committee at city hall, where he claims he has seen “an ideological shift to inclusion.”

Winning the Burton Award fills him with humility and pride.

“It encourages me to keep advocating for accessible, inclusive and diversity positive communities,” he says. “It also challenges me to move beyond my comfort level, which has traditionally been behind-the-scenes advocacy, to take on a more public role.”


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Susan Hickman

By Susan Hickman

For nearly four decades, journalist Susan Hickman has written about every imaginable subject for sundry newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad, as well as for CBC TV and CBC Radio. She has also managed various publications, including academic newspapers and technology magazines, and was recently commissioned to write a guide for foreign missions serving in Canada. Currently, she is working on a couple of personal memoirs.

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