The Medium spoke to Rabia Khedr, UTM alumna and candidate for Ward 6 City Councillor for Mississauga in the upcoming municipal elections.
Khedr has chaired the City of Mississauga Accessibility Advisory Board for the past eight years. In 2002, Khedr launched her own consulting business, Diversityworx. In 2010, while raising four teenagers and running various non-profits, Khedr went back to school at York to get her MA. A blind Muslim woman of South Asian descent, Khedr is a big believer that every obstacle is an opportunity.
The Medium: Why did you choose to come to UTM?
RK: I’ve lived most of my life in Mississauga. UTM was small, it was cozy, and it was easy to get to. I had friends going there. […] For somebody with a disability, it was easier for me than managing the massive downtown campus. Back then, there were only three buildings to bother with.
TM: What was your experience at UTM? What challenges did you face?
RK: I had to depend on a computer as an accommodation. There was technology available to me in a designated space in the library. I had a Kurzweil scanner, which would read out print, and a computer that allowed me to make the print larger on the screen.
Technology enabled me to complete my education successfully. However, equipment across the board on campus was not accessible to me. I couldn’t just use any computer in a computer science lab. I couldn’t just use any library system to search for books independently.
I built some wonderful friendships. It’s not just what you learn in the lectures and in the papers you write—the social atmosphere on campus really helps you mould and discover who you are. Those years at university were really pivotal in my life, really brought me forward in knowing who I am, what I stand for, and what I want to do with my future.
[Khedr explains that she wanted a job in HR after she graduated and ended up working on a project with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which exposed her to the training and development side of human resources. Along the way, she got married and had her first child. Her contract ended around the same time. After a maternity leave period, Khedr found a job at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.]
I had always said that I had enough of a disability personally that I wasn’t going to make a profession out of it, but I guess this was my calling.
TM: What led you to start your own consulting company?
RK: I worked for an agency that provided employment services early on, but I really felt I wasn’t having the impact I wanted to have directly on the lives of people. That job was too bureaucratic, so I quit it. That’s when I started my consulting company and launched a couple of not-for-profits to raise awareness of inclusion and accessibility.
RK: Diversityworx, my business, is strictly about offering services to governments and to non-profits, to organizations, and to corporations—to look at their organization and see how they can enhance accessibility and inclusion for everybody, around culture, faith, gender, disability, et cetera. I did research projects accordingly.
[Khedr explains that as an activist, she took part in founding and operating CAM-D, the Canadian Association of Muslims with Disabilities.]
Our goal was to really engage communities that haven’t been engaged in advancing community accessibility issues. Cultural communities and faith communities do a lot of work, give a lot of resources toward work that improves the lives of people, and leverage those resources to improving the lives of people with disabilities.
TM: How did you choose the non-profit organizations you’re part of?
RK: If I come across an issue that I can have impact on, I will organize, I will mobilize people, and we will do something about it. I’m a big believer in every obstacle is an opportunity. No barrier has to remain there. I’m an optimist/realist. I put my words into actions. I don’t take no for an answer.
TM: Why did you go back to school to get a MA? How was the experience different from UTM?
RK: Because I was going to lectures in the MA program anyway with my BA, I decided it was time to turn it into a degree. Also, as someone who is blind, it’s very difficult for me to get materials that are professional or academic in a format that I can read. Going to university and enrolling in a program would allow me that kind of access. So I said, let me do it, it’s going to force me to read more and write more, give me the credentials I need. I have the expertise because of the work I’ve done around disability rights, but it’s also important to balance that out with a degree. It’s activism to be able to do research on the issues that matter to me, and develop those academic skills to do research that is credible.
Materials were a lot more accessible to me. I was not waiting two months into the course to get my reading materials. That was a huge difference. There was a lot more understanding on behalf of the system and within the university setting about people with disabilities and accommodations.
TM: How did you make up your mind to run as candidate?
RK: This is not a career move; as an activist, this is where I feel I need to be, to be a role model to women, to women with disabilities, or persons with disabilities, and to kids from immigrant communities. It’s really important to feel that you can break through barriers and you can seize opportunities and foster a culture of belonging at a grassroots level. All Mississaugans need to see themselves reflected and respected within city hall.
TM: What advice do you have for UTM students with disabilities?
RK: Keep pursuing your education; you have to be better educated, more skilled, and more experienced than able-bodied people in order to get and keep a job. Never give up and definitely keep focused on developing skills and abilities and showcasing those skills and abilities to people out there to make your mark.
TM: Looking at all your achievements, why and how do you think you accomplished them? What drove you and who supported you through everything?
RK: My parents gave me room to do whatever I needed to do. That made it a lot easier for me. I think a big part of it was knowing who I am, being very clear and firm in my identity. That’s my identity as a racialized woman, a woman with a disability, and a woman who is Muslim and who is visible about it.
My faith, my ethics, my vision for the future has been a big part of my ability to move forward, and of course, the people in my life: my family, my husband, my friends. We don’t live in a bubble; it’s not just me, me, me being able to do all this—we are in it together. It’s mutually helping each other to achieve those goals.
I’ve had people in my life who have inspired me to go after my dreams, and in turn, I’ve inspired others to not take no for an answer and to follow their dreams.
This interview has been edited for length.