ABLE2 Feature: Rabia Khedr at the Helm of Disability Justice in Canada

“It has become my purpose; to voice for people who cannot voice for themselves or present their views for themselves in spaces that I occupy or have the ability to reach” 

– Rabia Khedr

If you are part of the disability community, an advocate for people with disabilities, or have been following the recent developments of the 2024 Budget, particularly the Canada Disability Benefit, you are likely familiar with Rabia Khedr. Rabia is a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal Awardee, National Director of Disability Without Poverty and a member of the Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities Minister Disability Advisory Group. She is a fearless advocate and champion for accessibility and inclusion. Her influence extends beyond grassroots movements, shaping nationwide policies and standards. Rabia is a driving force in the fight for social justice, disability justice, and human rights, leading the charge for a more inclusive Canada. 

Rabia, who was born with low vision, hails from Pakistan and grew up with a Muslim heritage. Her family moved to Canada in the 1970s and Rabia has since lived in Mississauga, Ontario, where she has raised four children with her husband. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Industrial Relations and Political Science from the University of Toronto and a Master of Arts in Critical Disability Studies from York University. Her firsthand experiences as a racialized minority, living with a disability and having siblings with disabilities, have deeply influenced her perspective on society. This lens is coloured with empathy, tenacity, and a strong commitment to social justice, and has significantly shaped her advocacy work over the years.

Khedr and her sister, Uzma Khan, receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012

Rabia’s career in serving the disability community was not intentional; “It has become my purpose; to voice for people who cannot voice for themselves or present their views for themselves in spaces that I occupy or have the ability to reach,” she declares with conviction. Rabia began working in disability services and with Ethno Racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario (ERDCO), where she had an awakening about the intersectionality of race, culture, faith, and gender. She has since then pursued a work mindset of being a “systems disrupter.”  She served as a commissioner with the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the City of Mississauga Chair of the Accessibility Committee. “I challenge systems to respond to the unique needs of people with disabilities, taking into account their whole identity, not just the disabled person components,” says Rabia. 

Rabia passionately talks about the intersection of disability and race and how mainstream disability discourse does not talk enough about the barriers that exist within faith and cultural spaces. “I took my lived experience, and I ended up applying it to much of my work. So, the gaps and barriers that I faced, that my family faced, I didn’t want other people facing. So, I decided to do something about it by getting more and more active in this space and establishing organizations, doing research, offering my perspectives in different conversations,” shares Rabia. 

Rabia recalls an unfortunate instance where she experienced discrimination as a racialized woman with a disability. “In a settlement agency, I was waiting for a meeting, and the staff assumed that I’m there for language testing. I’m like, ‘No, I’m here to facilitate a meeting,” she explains. “They only saw my skin colour, and maybe I was not making good eye contact, so they think I was there for support.” In many other instances, Rabia shares that the customer service staff will speak to her companion, instead of talking directly to her. “It’s really hard to dissect the experiences I have to just my disability or gender or hijjab, because it’s a combination. It’s because I’m a racialized woman who covers her head, and people think, you know, I’m oppressed,” says Rabia. She strongly emphasizes the importance of recognizing the intersectionality of race and disability and advocates for creating more opportunities for racialized individuals with disabilities. 

Her passions, inspired by her experiences, drove her to establish DEEN Support Services, an agency offering spiritual and culture-directed services for people with disabilities. She also founded Race and Disability Canada, an initiative dedicated to exploring and understanding the lived realities of Indigenous, Black and Racialized people with disabilities in Canada. 

Screenshot from the Canadian Muslim COVID-19 Task Force YouTube page

“One of the things I’m striving for is respite and residential services that meet the needs of folks with intellectual disabilities, given their faith and culture. There should be a continuation of a familial living environment when they cannot be cared for by family. We shouldn’t strip them of their identity as a whole person and just focus on categorizing and labeling and behaviour planning. It should be that they still have the right to have the same living experience,” stresses Rabia. 

As National Director of Disability Without Poverty, Rabia has led a nationwide movement to ensure the voices of disabled people are heard, to influence government decisions in reducing poverty and to secure public support for ending disability poverty. However, the recent outcome of the 2024 Federal Budget, which promised to lift people with disabilities above the poverty line, only proposed a $200/month benefit that will only affect 600,000 eligible Canadians. In the podcast Good Morning Hamilton, Rabia talks about the outcome of the Canada Disability Benefit and says, “Provincial Governments should definitely not claw back on this benefit because people with disabilities are living in significant poverty, and it’s not good enough for Canada and Canadians. It’s not a cost, it’s an investment in unleashing endless possibilities of contribution that disabled people have to make, like me. There is much more work left to do to #BetterTheBenefit,” But with Rabia at the helm of this movement, advocates and the disability community can continue to be hopeful.

Rabia Khedr and her family

When asked what she is most proud of, she shares, “I’m proud of my kids. I have a very supportive husband who has supported my career path and whatever I do in the community. We’ve raised four kids, and I’m very proud of that.” She also shares her achievement in building DEEN Support Services from ground zero, to an organization that operates on a seven-figure budget through direct fundraising and grants. The organization also has peer support groups for people with vision loss, people with mobility-related disabilities, caregivers, siblings, etc., and created a network of support in the communities. Moving forward, Rabia aspires to have more influence in making positive changes in the system and “to keep occupying platforms where I can reach,” says Rabia. 

Finally, Rabia imparts a powerful insight for people with disabilities: “Education is your biggest arsenal. Know who you are, recognize your barriers, and have a plan for your own accommodation. Be bold about it.” Rabia exemplifies that people with disabilities make positive and valuable contributions to our society. May we continue to be inspired by her tenacity and leadership as we collectively strive for a more inclusive and equitable Canada.