On the passing of disability rights champion Jim Derksen
The University of Manitoba community is saddened to hear of the passing of Jim Derksen this week at the age of 75. A disability rights champion for over 50 years who created more inclusive and accessible communities, Derksen was one of the founding members of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) and the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities (MLPH). In December 2009, Derksen was awarded an honorary doctorate from UM for his lifetime of advocacy.
Dr. Nancy Hansen and Dr. Diane Driedger, faculty members in the Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Disability Studies at UM, shared that Derksen was a “true pioneer” and “foundational leader” in the disability rights movement in Canada.
“Jim was instrumental in the inclusion of disabled people as a protected group in Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the Canadian Human Rights Code, during his work with [CCD]. He also played an instrumental role in the founding of Disabled Peoples’ International in 1981, which is now a coalition of disabled people’s groups in over 100 countries,” adds Driedger.
“Jim formulated and carried out the disabled rights movement’s philosophy of ‘A Voice Our Own’ from the mid-1970s until his passing. Jim’s writing is an important reading in my Introduction to Disability Studies course at UM and he was also a frequent guest lecturer in my classes.”
“On a personal note, I worked with Jim for over 40 years in various volunteer capacities and counted him as an important mentor and friend. Jim was a humble and welcoming person with a great intellect.”
Born in Morris, Manitoba in 1947, Derksen was disabled during the polio epidemic in 1951 at the age of six. Growing up in an era where those with disabilities didn’t have rights enshrined, Derksen famously advocated all levels and stripes of government for physical and mental disability rights inclusion in Section 15 of the Charter in the 1980s – an effort that ended up successful.
Throughout his life, Derksen was employed in disability policy work by the Government of Manitoba. He helped to develop organizations including the CCD, MLPH, Disabled Peoples’ International and the Canadian Disability Rights Council. He was also a recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal – recognizing the many other committees and groups he helped coordinate or advise through the years.
“He had a dream,” says Driedger. “As he stated in a 1983 speech in Dakar, Senegal at a meeting of Disabled Peoples’ International: ‘I sometimes think human society is asleep and dreaming a dream where some people are perfect, beautiful and powerful, and others are flawed, unbeautiful and powerless. In the dream, the perfect people play their immortal parts and the imperfect people are rejected from human life. We [disabled people] are helping to awaken humanity to the reality that all people are flawed and yet beautiful, and each one limited in his or her unique way and yet powerful.’”
For more on the passing and life of Jim Derksen, and to read his UM convocation speech from 2009, see the CCD tribute written this week.