“It’s not the disability that disables us, but it’s the environment around us and the lack of support. We need to build these systems so they allow people with disabilities to participate and thrive, not just living hand-to-mouth.”
Meenu Sikand has spent most of her life showing others that although people with disabilities can work hard and contribute to society, working hard isn’t enough to change society’s attitudes about disability.
“Even when you work, it’s not enough for a decent living,” she says. Government programs “keep you at a certain level.”
Meenu is the executive lead for equity, diversity and inclusion at Holland Bloorview Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto after a career in regional government and the corporate sector. She worked at the Region of Peel for 15 years where she oversaw accessibility planning program of Peel and ensured compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. But she struggled with poverty for much of her career due to additional costs of living with a disability.
Meenu had a spinal cord injury in 1986, shortly after she emigrated to Canada from India. She’s used a wheelchair since, and much of her income has gone towards repairing and buying wheelchairs and accessible vans, as well as renovating her home to make it accessible.
“I have been working all my life and still we are paying the cost of disability out-of-pocket,” she says. “We know that the undue cost of disability equipment and services is passed to the individual. That really puts you on an unequal, uneven playing field with others.”
Meenu believes people with disabilities should be given equal opportunities to work and contribute to society. But they shouldn’t be scared that they will lose all of their government financial and health benefits if they work.
“We all have some abilities, and to the best of our abilities we should be able to contribute in the world that we live. The system should be set up in such to enable you and not disable you,” she says.
Meenu is also the founder and CEO of Accessibility for All, a non-profit organization that helps organizations make their practices accessible, with a particular focus on youth, women, seniors and people from racially marginalized communities. Meenu currently sits on the board of the United Way GTA, Canadian Women’s Foundation and Accessibility Standards Advisory Committee. Meenu has volunteered with numerous organizations, including the Centre for Independent Living and ARCH Disability Law Centre. A sought-after speaker, she was inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame in 2020.
Meenu lives in Woodbridge, Ont. with her husband and dog, where she enjoys watching documentaries about social issues.