Although she has a transformative vision for the future, Sahana Parameswara knows that there’s a great deal to be learned from the past. As the executive director for Edmonton’s Gateway Association, she is well-versed in the history of the disability sector and the treatment of individuals with disabilities in Alberta.
“It’s very important for us to not forget the history of how and why Gateway was founded. We don’t have museums to show how disabled people were categorically unclassified, discriminated against, or exploited,” she says. “When we look back to the history of how people with disabilities were treated, we can actually see what a huge difference there is between then and now. And then we can start to think about what it really means to be inclusive.”
Since 1975, Gateway Association has provided a support network to families and individuals living with disabilities. What began as a collective of families looking to improve the opportunities available to their loved ones — building a ‘Gateway to a better life’ — has since grown to be a community hub, offering workshops, mentorship and employment services.
“From the beginning, Gateway’s role has been to connect the dots that caregivers could not on their own,” says Parameswara. “When they came together, these families were trying to show that everyone—regardless of ability—should be valued.”
To help preserve this history, Gateway has created the Alberta Legacy for Disability Rights project, with support from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation and the Edmonton Heritage Council. The project website features an interactive timeline and video interviews detailing the historical details of Alberta’s disability sector.
The legacy project is only one small part of Gateway’s current work. Today, the bulk of the association’s work centres on helping individuals with disabilities find and maintain opportunities to be involved in civic life. For some, this might mean finding meaningful employment, while for others it might mean accessing coaching or mentoring services. Many of Gateway’s clients face multiple barriers and challenges; Parameswara and her team work to provide supportive solutions tailored to each individual’s unique needs and circumstances. It’s not easy work, and it often involves dismantling long-held beliefs and practices.
“A lot of the people who were seeking jobs were in their 30s or 40s by the time they were approaching us. They didn’t grow up being asked, ‘What do you want to be?’ and as a result they hadn’t ever thought about what was possible or how to achieve it,” she says. “These are the sorts of things we need to completely transform in our society.”
Gateway’s tailor made, radically inclusive approach seems to be working. In addition to serving the Edmonton area for more than four decades, the association recently opened a Calgary location focused on youth employment. Although operations were altered significantly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Parameswara is confident the work Gateway is doing is making a difference.
“To truly create an inclusive future, it’s important to keep in mind all the features that make up each one of us. It’s no longer about race, ability, sex or any other single defining factor,” she says. “What we need to do as a community and as a society is meet people where they’re at and value them for who they are. That’s what we’re trying to do.”