Lisa Djevahirdjian | CUPE Staff

In December 2022, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) paid tribute to Sylvain Le May’s exceptional work by presenting him with the Carol McGregor CLC Disability Rights Award. A member of CUPE and a long-time trade unionist, Le May is an outstanding activist and an inspiration to us all. 

From 2007 to 2021, Sylvain Le May ran the Service d’accueil et de soutien aux personnes étudiantes en situation de handicap (Reception and support service for students with disabilities) at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). He currently sits on committees representing persons with disabilities at CUPE, the CLC and the Quebec Federation of Labour. Since 2017, he has been a member of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (Quebec human rights and youth rights commission). He has also represented paratransit users as a member of the Société de transport de Montréal’s Board of Directors since 2022.

Question 1

Do you remember the first time you encountered a situation that helped you understand why recognizing our diverse human rights struggles is important for the collective good?

When I was 18, I worked as a counsellor at a summer camp for youth with disabilities, and I realized that a disability often hides barriers to what I consider to be a dignified life. For example, a disability would hide poverty some people experience, lack of access to culture, racism or mental health issues.

My path in life led me to understand that I am the sum of all my parts, just like everyone else. Among other things, I am a man, gay homosexual, and educated, with a disability. We must show that if we stop hiding our differences, others will too, and we’ll all be better off. As far as I’m concerned, diversity is the only acceptable way to move forward!

Having a disability often defines who we are, but it doesn’t have to. It is only part of my identity. I am not just “a disability.” I think it is important for our collective well-being, and for a society that is richer in every way, to work to welcome and support persons with disabilities.

Question 2

How does embracing diversity benefit us all?

Everyone gets old. Everyone eventually loses their autonomy, each at their own pace. Building an inclusive society doesn’t just give access to persons with disabilities today, but also to people who don’t realize one day they’ll need accessibility too.

Here is another example: why not install light switches lower in all buildings to ensure accessibility to housing for everyone who uses a wheelchair? There is no doubt that people who have children would also appreciate light switches at that level too!

Question 3

What is the union movement’s role in defending the rights of persons with disabilities?

Unions aren’t just obligated to defend these rights, they are also well positioned, through different committees and working groups, to monitor workplaces and ensure they are accessible.

A union’s main duty is to defend its members. Unions have the tools they need to campaign for human rights to receive the attention they deserve. The goal is to ensure everyone can fully exercise their rights and freedoms, and that we truly fight all forms of discrimination. It’s why unions exist.

Unions must be proactive. They can and should clear a path for vulnerable people and lead by example. It is what they did in the past when it comes to labour law, and what unions have accomplished ended up benefitting non-unionized people.

For persons with disabilities, we must innovate and show that a path forward does exist in spite of differences or difficulties. Unions are also in a good position to educate on these issues. This duty to educate is substantial, because it relies on dialogue, and without dialogue, nothing can be achieved. This challenge is even more real and far-reaching when it comes to invisible disabilities.

Question 4

Is Canadian society an example to the rest of the world when it comes to the rights of persons with disabilities?

Although the situation isn’t perfect, Canada is and must be a major driver for change. Because it has two founding nations, Canada has an openness to others right in its DNA. We see that in our history. In this context, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is the next step forward. Dialogue will enrich our future and our differences will make it stronger. We must strive for a better way to live together and to be open. We have to avoid knee-jerk reactions and jumping to conclusions.

A major gesture of openness, for example, would be to learn to say a few words in an Indigenous language or in sign language. The same goes for our two official languages.

Canada is also a land of immigrants. In that context, living together means putting our differences to work in the pursuit of a common project. This project could involve building a fairer and more equitable society, and each person living in this great country could participate and contribute to its development.

I have always been convinced that empathy is only possible when we know something about another person’s story. However, in a world bombarded by a sea of news, taking the time to interact in this way is unfortunately becoming increasingly rare.

Knowing the other person’s story is, in a way, allowing them to be part of ours – it is opening the door to our heart.

Question 5

What are you most proud of?

First, I am proud of the education my parents gave me, which in large part made me the man I am today. They were both working class, and never stood in the way of my dreams and the opportunities to achieve them.

My two other great sources of pride relate to my professional life.

The first is feeling that I have been able to positively influence people in the path they chose in life. I am happy to have supported them and to have broken down some barriers in the way persons with disabilities are seen.

Through my work, I have seen people reach their goals, which makes me useful and like I’m able to make a difference, no matter how small. Sometimes our attitude toward people can be far more disabling than a physical obstacle. Inclusion is much broader than just providing a reserved parking space.

Of course, receiving the CLC award makes me very proud, but the pride I feel would be meaningless if I didn’t share this award with all the people who also try to make a difference in their daily lives.

Through many small acts, together we end up making a big difference.

Secondly, I am proud to be co-chair of Agir pour l’équité et l’inclusion des personnes en situation de handicap (Acting for equity and inclusion of people with disabilities), a wonderful initiative from UQAM to increase equity, diversity and inclusion in structures and practices throughout the university community.

Question 6

What is your dream?

I dream of an inclusive society that brings people together and is proud of everyone who make up its social fabric – a fabric that is as rich and diverse in its shapes and colours as it is in the origins that define it. Our society would then be like the quilts my grandmother sewed – rich with meaning.