Accessibility consultant and inspirational speaker
Marco's deeply realistic and human vision is so touching and inspiring. His experience as an expert speaker in inclusion is felt and appreciated in each of his stories and remarks. With his personal experience and remarkable achievements in the field of inclusion, Marco truly knows how to inspire us to get involved in providing inclusive solutions for everyone. Whether with his TEDxStanleyPark presentation, his involvement within the Rick Hansen Foundation™ (RHFAC) or his accessibility consulting business, Marco remains focused on the social impact of his work and actively contributes to building concrete projects in the field of inclusion. « I approach people as human beings. I don't use pronouns. My idea behind inclusion is that the more boxes we put ourselves in, the more we divide ourselves. We are all human beings, let's treat each other with love and respect.
I don’t like terms like diverse-abilities or differently abled. I think terms like these just try to soften the fact that there is something wrong with having a disability and I don't think there is anything wrong with having a disability. This is how you live your life. This is a fact of reality. I was born with a disability and I chose to live with it. It made me the person I am today ». - Marco Pasqua
Marco, tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I was born on July 4, 1985, and my parents later discovered that I had cerebral palsy. Being born three months premature, I was the size of only two packs of butter. I was really small. They didn't know what it would mean for my life, but they weren't discouraged. My father was an immigrant, he came to Canada from Italy and so I'm a first-generation Canadian and like a lot of families, they just wanted to create a better life for us. Being born in Canada is something I am very grateful for. Going through primary and secondary school, I didn't feel less valued. In elementary school, I was somewhat bullied, because the kids just didn't understand disability. As I grew up, I discovered that I was one of the lucky ones in high school. I graduated in 2000. At that time, there wasn't as much pressure for inclusion as we see in society today. Still, I feel like more people were open to everyone, at least in my experience, regardless of ability, skin colour, or sexual orientation. It wasn't a topic of conversation. It was a good thing for me. I was accepted by a lot of different people, like the sports crowd because I participated in wheelchair athletics, horseback riding, weightlifting, swimming and wheelchair basketball. I was respected by the other athletes. That’s why I didn’t want to explore accessibility as a career path. I actually got a degree in video game design. I landed a job at one of the biggest video game studios in the world, Electronic Arts, after graduating. I worked in the video game industry for about five years, then during the 2008 recession, I lost my job. That was definitely my wake-up call. I've been trying to get back into the video game industry and technology because the reason I love technology is because I love being able to create characters and video game worlds that have skills and abilities beyond mine. When you're a game designer and you're able to create characters that have skills and abilities way beyond what you have, I guess it was my way of creating an inclusive world and I didn't know it at the time. It's funny, my girlfriend at the time who is now my wife (she's been with me now for 16 years) and when this happened I remember calling her on the phone. I thought she would be devastated that I told her I was losing my job but instead, she was jumping for joy on the other end of the line. I was wondering why are you excited; I just told you I lost my job. She said to me: You love what you do but I don't think it's what you're supposed to do. I think you're supposed to light a fire in people and use your voice to spread positivity and show people that there is a different way of doing things. You should try your luck and become a professional speaker. At the time, I knew nothing about starting a business, but with his encouragement, I started giving talks and the rest is history.
What does inclusion mean to you?
I think it's a complicated question because obviously, it's different for each person. To me, inclusion means that someone can go into any environment and feel accepted and able to be involved in anything that is done by someone else without having to ask. I think it's really important. If someone goes to a place where they live, work, play or learn, it doesn't feel like they're excluding anyone. Individuals do not need to adapt but the environment must adapt to them. They should never have to ask. This is the really important part. I also think people can go to extremes on both levels. Some people may feel entitled and tell you that you should do all these things for them. But you also have to meet people where they are, meet them in the middle. If you walk into an establishment and it doesn't automatically respond to your needs, it could just mean that the person has never been exposed to that information before. This does not mean that they are trying to exclude you and that they are doing so with malicious intent. They may not have the necessary knowledge.
This is why I always approach conversations with an advocacy approach of openness and awareness rather than an activist approach. Someone who raises awareness steps into a situation, recognizes that there is a problem, and offers solutions to that problem to create a true ally in a situation rather than creating more barriers by attacking other people. If I really want to convince people and create change, I need them to understand that I recognize that they weren't trying to exclude me, to meet them where they are and not leave them there. Take them with you on the journey of inclusion. This person will feel capable of creating real, meaningful change. A truly inclusive environment means you are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. We can make things better together.
What are the solutions that make your travel, your activities, and your daily life easier?
If I want to go ahead and do something with my daughter, who doesn't have a disability, she always expects Dad to be able to do whatever she can. So I call ahead to inquire and determine if an environment I want to enter with her would be accessible to me. I don't think it's helpful when you go to a website and it just says the location is fully accessible or not. What does it mean? For me, fully accessible means something different because I have a mobility device. But if I'm blind and you say fully accessible, does that mean everything is written in Braille? What if I don't read Braille but I'm blind? Instead, having a website and staff that are knowledgeable about the accessibility features they have is better. They can list them and share the information afterwards. Now I can figure out what makes the most sense to me.
How do these solutions positively impact your life?
I live in Surrey, BC where there are many parks and playgrounds, over 300 in my town alone. My daughter loves going to the park. There are also fully accessible parks here in Surrey. I would not know that if I had not been able to do the research, go on the website and get the information.
The thing that I’m proud of is being able to create documents for accessibleemployer.ca and helping inform other businesses across Canada on how you can be more inclusive and that those documents are for free. The sight of relief that I hear from an employer that is just starting out being inclusive and they want to make the right changes but they have no idea where to start, or how much it’s going to cost and they assume it’s going to cost a lot of money. I love being able to open their eyes and tell them it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to be inclusive. You just need to have an open mind. The biggest barrier is attitude. If we can get pass the stigmas, we will be so much further ahead. So we have to inform people. Access to information opens people’s minds and makes inclusivity a reality that truly benefits people.
What are your best suggestions for inclusive solutions?
To ask the right questions. Ask people with disabilities what they need, so that they can let you know what makes the most sense to them. It’s going to be different for every person, but as long as you know which question to start with, you have a better outline.
Some people need grab bars, some people need a lowered bed, and some people need ceiling tracks because they need help being transferred. There is so much to consider. I think that people in the hospitality and tourism industry do need to receive this training, almost more than anyone else. The world is opening more, it’s the perfect opportunity to gain knowledge, not just for inclusive training, but also for compassion training. Be more compassionate towards other people.
What are your top recommendations for solutions that promote inclusion?
First and foremost, be open-minded to perspectives other than your own. People may feel that they received training in the past, but that doesn’t mean that someone else with live experience may not be able to teach you something, even if they are lower on the hierarchy of employment. For example, I start a new job in a company, but I want to help educate the CEO. Just because I’m a new employee that does not mean that I’m not able to help the CEO. That CEO needs to be open and willing to have that conversation with me and get vulnerable.
That would be my second tip, be vulnerable with people. Be willing to create an environment where vulnerability is accepted. The more you open yourself to being vulnerable, the more people around you are going to have an understanding of why you need certain accommodations. And that’s okay for everybody to ask for those types of things. And those personal requests will be assessed on a person-to-person basis, but everybody is allowed to. Just because I present as somebody who uses a wheelchair it does not mean you should assume that I need accommodations. The businesses that are the most successful have a program that is ruled out to the entire company, that says «Hey, every six months, we are going to have a conversation and determine what are the things we can do for you to operate at your best to support our company to be its best? ». You don’t have to ask a question like what kind of medical support is needed to do your job better, but rather what kind of support have you received in the past that has helped you be the most productive in your work environment. You are not breaking any HR rules by asking better questions, you are opening the door to say it’s okay for you to express yourself right now, you can tell me as much or as little as you want. What I am trying to do is help you do your job the best that you can and help our business do better. It's a win-win situation.
The third thing that helps create a more welcoming and inclusive environment is the willingness to adapt. You may have received the training, you may become more vulnerable and you may think that you have all these things done, however, life changes. We saw that in the last three years. We all had to adapt to working from home. For years the disability community has been asking for work-from-home capabilities and wasn’t it funny that the businesses were saying we don’t have the infrastructure to do it? Yet, two to three weeks into the pandemic all of a sudden all these businesses can go on Zoom and Teams and do these things. Isn’t that funny that we have been asking for it for the past 5-10 years and all of sudden, it affected everybody and then they were willing to adapt? It should not take a global pandemic in order for us to find solutions that support everybody.
What are your aspirations or desires regarding inclusion?
It’s like something that Rick Hansen always says, he dreams of the day when he is out of a job.
Ultimately, I would love, if we get to a place, especially now with the rise of artificial intelligence and how that can be used for good to improve certain things, I would love the day where I no longer say I am an accessibility consultant because things are automatically made universally and universally designed. That would be a dream for me. But I think that a smaller step would be that people are unified in their approach to accessibility and inclusion. With the Accessible Canada Act being passed in 2019, we are only starting to see the effect of that now. Here in British Columbia, all the businesses that are federally and provincially mandated need to have an accessibility strategy outline in place by September 2023. This is why my wife and I are so busy, we are working with so many cities. It should not take an arbitrary deadline for people to want to rush to get things in place. I would like to be in a place where people are doing these things because they recognize the benefits to the community and society and not because the government told them to. I would love to see more cities collaborating.
Is there a specific inclusive personality you admire, and what qualities about them do you find particularly noteworthy? Obviously, it’s Rick Hansen. I think the most noteworthy thing about Rick is that he was making these movements and doing these things before it was ever popular. I would say that Rick Hansen is the original gangster when it comes to accessibility and inclusion. That is why I look out to him a lot. Nobody had a blueprint on how to create these conversations in society. He used his influence slowly. He didn’t know that his motion tour would be as big of a success as it was, but he just started with something. That’s why I look up to him so much, guys like him and Terry Fox.
Terry Fox was another guy who ran because of a certain circumstance about him having cancer and wanting to raise awareness. Guys like Terry Fox would have had no idea that his impact would still be carrying across the country today, over 40 years later. For one guy to say you know what? I want people to know what it is that we are going through and how they can make a difference. So really, Rick set the bar. I look at that as a friendly challenge to exceed that, let’s go above the bar, let’s see what we can do to create what we like to call a legacy. People start things out in society and it’s never intended to end when they pass away. Even in the work that I do, I wanna be remembered for the positive things that I was able to do. I always like to say this, you are only as good as the last person that remembers you. It’s not about ego, I just mean what we did created an impact and it meant something to people. That they were inspired to do the next thing and that is exactly what Rick has done for me.