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August 4, 2016

Emily Duffett

This is the third in our series of interviews of Haligonians with disabilities. This conversation took place with Emily Duffett on Wednesday, July 27th at the Halifax Central Library on Spring Garden Road.

26 year-old Emily Duffett was born in Kentville, Nova Scotia in the province’s Annapolis Valley. Born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, doctors told her parents that she would never walk, never have any function below the waist, and would have below average brain function. However, with the combination of supportive parents, a close-knit community, and her own fierce determination, she would soon tackle each of these predictions in turn, even walking unassisted until the age of nine, when further surgery to correct her spine necessitated the use of a wheelchair.

Indeed, when asked to elaborate on what it was like growing up in Kentville the closeness of the community is the thing that Duffett stressed most. “When I first entered the chair at 9, we debated moving to a more accessible home, but the street we lived on was like a community unto itself. It had a number of older couples who were almost like grandparents to me, so we knew we’d always have someone to rely on.” There was also a real sense of camaraderie among the area’s youth, as Duffett attended school with the same group of kids until the eighth grade, when they moved to a larger, amalgamated school. To illustrate this point, Emily told a story that has stuck with her for many years. “One of my best friends is a guy I’ve known since grade primary. I remember in the sixth grade we were driving him home, and he couldn’t figure out why my mom was taking so long to get in the car. He then remembered she had to pack up my chair, which he’d forgotten all about! That told me that he saw me for me, instead of the chair, which is very important to me.”

The age of nine would prove to be something of a turning point in Emily’s life. Not only did it mark the beginning of her time as a wheelchair user, but it also led to a series of events that would ignite a passion for education that continues to this day. It began when she underwent some testing that indicated that her learning was about three grade levels below where it should have been at the time. Those who conducted the testing assured Emily’s parents that this was fine, and that they ought not worry. Dissatisfied with this response, her parents had her further tested, before surgeries made necessary a nearly two-year period of home schooling, overseen chiefly by her mother. By the time that she returned to the school system, she was testing at or above grade level in a number of subjects. It was this, she says, that instilled in her “a passion for learning and helping others to succeed.

I was curious to know if Emily thought that her physical disability had a role to play in the lack of concern shown by the school officials who had tested her at nine. She responded that, “this is a question I’ve asked myself many times. I took a disability studies class during my master’s degree, which eventually led me to the conclusion that yes, the disability was part of it, but I’ve also come to the realization that it was likely also due to the fact that the school had so many students who required assistance, which left them with many to help on limited resources. For example, in my fifth grade class, of 28 students, I believe 13 were identified as needing extra assistance with their studies.”
Following the completion of high school, Emily took her passion for learning to Acadia University, where she first pursued an honours degree in sociology with a double major is psychology, followed by a master’s degree in sociology. Duffett’s work biography states that in doing so, she became “the first student in a manual wheelchair without a full-time assistant to graduate from the campus in the 172 years that it had been open.” Perhaps almost as important as her achievements in the classroom, however, was the work that she was able to do in partnership with the university to make the campus more accessible not only for her, but for those that would come after. Asked how this was accomplished, she explained, “I worked very closely with the Disability Services Office, the Registrar’s Office, and Facilities to ensure that changes were made not only for myself, but for future students as well. One of the best aspects of the relationship was that their attitude was, “what can we do for you?” as opposed to “here’s what we have, take it or leave it.”

Following the completion of her master’s degree, Duffett had some difficulty in securing full-time work, so she decided to throw herself headlong into volunteer work. Among her many ventures in this regard included serving as chair of the National Education Association of Disabled Students, serving as chair of the Nova Scotia League for Equal opportunities, as a past board member of the Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association of Nova Scotia, and as a member of various government committees. Some of the many projects she was involved in as a member of these organizations included helping to complete a first-of-its-kind study looking at the experience of graduate students with a disability across Canada, and helping to spearhead the Abilities Now Youth Summit in May of last year.

Emily was able to find full-time employment this past May when she was hired as the Program Manager/Inclusion Navigator with ADDvocacy ADHAD and Life Skills Coaching. The position was created under the Access Ability Wage Subsidy Program, which is funded by the Federal Government’s Opportunities Fund for Persons with Disabilities. She officially assumed the position on May 2nd of this year. Asked to elaborate on her position, she commented that, “in my role, I’m overseeing the content development of the StrADDegies for Success program, which is a transition program designed to help students living with ADD and diverse abilities to transition into post-secondary, career exploration, skilled trades or entrepreneurship. It helps develop skills like time management, organization, and understanding the learning barriers. I’m also overseeing and creating workshops on topics such universal design, mental health, employer myths and misconceptions and self-advocacy, among others.”

When asked how her routine might differ from those with no disability, Emily responded with answers common to many in the disabled community. “I think I definitely have to add more time. For example, with my morning routine, I like to be fully awake before attempting things like transfers…in the community, where I have to rely on public transportation, I really have to scout out accessible bus routes, and ensure that the places I’m going are accessible.” This was not the first time that transportation came up in our conversation. Duffett had noted earlier that the lack of easily accessible transportation in Kentville had been one of the few drawbacks of growing up there. Asked her views on living in Halifax as a person with a disability, she noted that, “I think that there is still more work that needs to be done, but we’re moving in the right direction. For an old city, and one with a lot of hills, I think change is happening slowly. I think you can also see a gradual shift in people’s attitudes.”

As I often do in these interviews, I asked Emily who she admired most in life. While not naming anyone specific, she pointed to “people who really devote their lives to making change, where you can see their passion and dedication on a daily basis, despite the struggles.” While she may not say so herself, upon speaking with her, I can say that I would put Emily Duffett squarely in this group of people, particularly as it pertains to the issue of education. Historically, there has been a marked discrepancy in access to education between those with disabilities and those without. The work that Duffett is doing and has done, both in the volunteer and professional arenas, has served to actively combat this discrepancy. It’s work that I, for one, feel should not go unnoticed.

-Jeremy MacDonald

Note: Additional information taken from http://addvocacycoach.com/emily-m-duffett/

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