Regina: Carla Harris

Photo by Aidan Morgan. Intro by Brandon Harris

Photo by Aidan Morgan. Intro by Brandon Harris

Hailing from a small prairie town, Carla Harris tirelessly seeks to transform life challenges and tragedies into creative and productive endeavors.  Ever a champion for the marginalized, Carla has drawn upon her experience and education to empower, inspire, and give voice to the less privileged. Carla founded a business that connects companies with disabled employees to build a more broad customer base and corporate culture. She is a poet who draws on her own journey to tell stories of devastation and hope, and uses her influence to advocate for the rights of disabled people in the Regina area and beyond.  The depth of Carla's empathy provides her little rest, but every achievement she reaches becomes a platform onto which to elevate others; to give hope of a better life for all.

KC: What kinds of projects are you involved in right now? 

I’m a creative thinker so I have a variety of projects underway at all times. My business helps companies improve their accessibility practices and inclusive recruitment strategies, I am writing a collection of disabled narrative poetry, while also advocating for the rights of sexual assault victims in our justice system.

Every project I work on strives to broaden the definition of how my clients view inclusion. Too often companies write diversity policies based on basic industry standards rather than actual input from the groups they are trying to include. Without this input from folks with lived-experience, their strategies often miss the mark. Having a disability should be recognized as a respectful accreditation for businesses to recruit from! As a matter of basic survival, disabled folks learn to recognize barriers, strategically plan our days to overcome accessibility limits around us, and work while adapting to constant change. This training and professional development continues throughout our entire lives; every new task or environment presents a new challenge, and often our health is changing over time as well. If companies start valuing this lived-experience with the same level of respect as PMPs & CPAs, they will gain a competitive advantage by identifying new customer segments and drawing from larger talent pools.

KC: What is your day job? What do you like about it? What's challenging? 

I conduct focus group research with my team of Access Advisors who are people with different types of disabilities. My team focuses on three main areas: identifying patterns and invisible barriers within the disabled customer journey; reviewing a company’s messaging; and eliminating barriers from online recruitment processes. Its exciting work as each project is unique as we work with companies to drill down to the root of inaccessibility and address it directly rather than thinking about traditional labels and preconceived notions about what people need.  What we have found, time and time again, is that accommodations made for disabled folks also have a significant positive impact on individuals who have accessibility needs but do not identify as having a disability.  For example, delivery options can be helpful for a wheelchair user, but can also be very useful for a single parent without time to get to the store.  By focusing on specific objective needs rather than labeling services as existing for disabled people, we can develop universal customer service that provides better experience for everyone.

Probably the biggest challenge I come up against is companies who think that accessibility strategies are for protecting a business from risk. This isn’t about political correctness, it’s about increasing your sales. When we point out that the estimated annual buying power of disabled Canadians is at $55 billion, and that having one disabled family member affects the purchasing decisions of an entire family, businesses start to pay closer attention.

KC: What is important to you?

A pharmaceutical plan for Canada. I will be a disabled entrepreneur for as long as I can afford to be. However the medication required for my chronic condition costs more than my mortgage every year, so if I broke a leg and couldn’t work for a while, I would not be able to afford my medication as an entrepreneur. With a generation that is blooming in independent business, we need to invest in pharmacare because medication doesn't only save lives, it saves money. According to Stats Can’s new findings from the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, nearly 50% of disabled Canadians can not always afford their medications. This means their health conditions progress faster and require emergency assistance more often than they should. Medication is a healthcare investment that can save our nation billions in preventative measures. 

KC: What do you like the most, and least, about Regina?

What I like about Regina is our flexible, innovative and collaborative arts community. I have never seen another city with such a wide collection of different non profit organizations that come together to collectively organize and celebrate in the community.

I do not like how Regina welcomes cars to drive with only one person inside, but thinks bus routes should only run when each bus is full. I was sexually assaulted by a taxi driver in 2016 while trying to get home from one of Regina’s most prominent cultural centres that lacks transit access. As Regina keeps building businesses like Costco outside of our transit routes, they are actively choosing to perpetuate the underemployment of our marginalized residents. The traumatic experience I had forced me to redirect my career, so I guess painful lessons can be valuable. It has made me want to work on building a better Regina.

KC: What is your impression of Saskatoon?

Saskatoon is setting some great examples, keeping areas like the indoor Farmers Market and outdoor Broadway street fairs open and accessible to expanding audiences and artists in their community. I also give a special thumbs up for the rapid transit routes they are working on now, because people who acquire disability later in life often have already bought homes and established lives in specific areas of a city. Rapid routes are the best way to expand the employability options for your residents. 

KC: Finish this sentence: If the best of all possible worlds was reality....

Our democracy would include representatives from every socioeconomic background, every age group, sexuality, gender and culture, as well as disabled voices. As the disabled community says, “nothing about us without us”.  Our system would value our insight and pay us equitably for our contributions. An inclusive democracy would need a whole new governance model to protect the identities and individual liberties of all people. Our current electoral system requires such a large upfront financial investment that it stomps out the voices that would have so much to contribute to our social programming. 

KC: How has your identity helped you / hindered you?

My chronic condition has been a life-long learning experience, it has helped me learn who I am, and what unique skills I can bring to the table. My identity has given me empathy and taught me to adapt to ongoing changes, resisting knee jerk responses. I am proud of how I can continually learn from my peers in the disabled community. 

The biggest hinderings I’ve experienced tend to come from abled people who feel uncomfortable and react by trying to make decisions for me. This is always hard, since I know it usually comes from their intent to help. I have gradually learned that I need to stop tiptoeing around those awkward moments. I am learning how to be forward and open a discussion when they become uncomfortable and try to avoid it, and I am prepared to tell them directly if I do not need their opinion.

From the Proust Questionnaire: When and where were you happiest?

Before I was diagnosed in my 20s I was living my life fully without ever thinking a title like disability. Everywhere I went, no one knew I had different learning methods or physical restraints and I felt confident and respected. Prior to my diagnosis I was not afraid to take risks, seek goals, hit obstacles and learn from them. I look back on that incredible confident time in my life and remind myself that I had the same disability then as I do now. As long as I continue to assess my workload and make changes any time that health barriers should arise, I can be that same confident and driven person. 


Carla Harris Consulting:

Story of You Podcast, Guest feature:

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