Speaker Profiles

2018 Speaker Profiles

Keynote Speaker: Sarah Jama

Sarah Jama is a community organizer from Hamilton, Ontario. She holds a Social Sciences degree from McMaster University. Her lived experiences have fostered interests and a passion for: community engagement, disability justice, and activism.

​Sarah has given a variety of keynotes, including for the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO). She has also been a speaker for a variety of organizations, such as: Start up Fest, The Broadbent Institute, the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Sexual Assault Centre for the Greater Hamilton Area (SACHA), Experience Canada, The Elect more Women Conference, The Canadian Association for the Prevention of Discrimination and Harassment in Higher Education (CAPDHHE), CBC Radio One, the Ajax Diversity Conference, the Indigenous, Racialized, Migrant and People with Disabilities Solidarity Symposium, and more.

Sarah currently works at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion as an Outreach Coordinator and is also a Community Engagement Liaison to Councillor Matthew Green at the City of Hamilton. In her spare time, she acts as a consultant, and is currently working with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board to create anti-racism training and peer support based curriculum for students at the school board.

Sarah will be speaking as our keynote speaker on Friday, March 2 from 6:00pm-7:00pm.

Opening Panel: Creating Accessible Forms of Advocacy

Melanie Marsden:

At Springtide Resources, Melanie enjoys networking with other organizations, as well as providing education and awareness through a cross-disability lens. Currently, she serves as Chair on the community board for Ethno-Racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario. Melanie also serves on the Accessibility Consumer Advisory Committee at Nellie’s, a Toronto women’s shelter and a community based feminist organization and is a current member of the Health Standards Committee for the AODA.

Melanie received her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and hopes to complete a Master of Social Work, studying aboriginal elder teachings. In her spare time, she enjosy spending time with family and friends, listening to music, playing the piano, singing, cycling and traveling.

Janet Rodriguez

Janet is an activist from many sectors of the city. Janet is one of the organisers of the Toronto Disability Pride March and is a Board member of the Ethno-Racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario ERDCO.
As a student, Janet has advocated for access to Mental health services for Continuing Education Students; and held an elected position as Students with Disabilities Commissioner with the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. Janet believes in grassroots organising with people across the disability spectrum to create meaningful and accountable change. As a patient who continuously interacts with the healthcare system, Janet has volunteered as a patient partner to educate medical students on matters of Social determinants of health.

Rebecca Weekes

Rebecca is one of the Co-Chairs of Students’ for Barrier-free Access at the University of Toronto.

Melanie, Janet and Rebecca will be speaking on Saturday, March 3 from 11:00am-12:00pm.

Poetry Night


Carol Krause has long been involved as an activist in the disability rights movement. She was Chair of Students for Barrier-Free Access at University of Toronto and has done presentations on accessibility issues at university conferences. She continues to develop her knowledge of disability issues at Osgoode Law School, Toronto. Between Myself and Them: Stories of Disability and Difference is her first book.

Jay Dittburner is a 23-mad identifying trans poet and a recent graduate of Ryerson University. They have been an active poet for nearly a decade and have struggled with mental wellness issues as well. Sadness, self-worth, love, anxiety, fear, beauty and their trans-identity is the forefront of their poetry. Some of their material is heavy and deals with issues of trauma, depression, addictions and their existence. Social anxiety has kept them off the stage for many years, but luckily the support of the community and their friends have allowed them to share their art once again.  As their favorite song says, Jay is coming out of their cage. And doing just fine.

Vanessa McGowan is a spoken word artist & singer/songwriter living with Cerebral Palsy. McGowan’s EP “Alive” was released by Factory Fast Records, NYC & her work can be heard as the only poetry, on musical compilations “Americana Retrofit” and “Smoking Gun” She opened for Buddy Wakefield during his 2014/15 world tour and was the highest ranking Canadian poet to perform in the Finals at The Capturing Fire Slam 2015 in Washington, DC. As successful solo touring artist, Vanessa has featured at venues across North America . Publications include Divine Cockeyed Genius (bojit Press, 2012). McGowan is a proud co-founder of WordSpell, Canada’s only ongoing poetry series showcasing women and non binary poets.

Carol, Jay and Vanessa will be performing on Friday, March 2 from 7pm-8pm.

Comedy Night

Jackie Pirico

Jackie Pirico delights audiences with her oddball material and disarming style. Catch her Just for Laughs television taping on The Comedy Network, her segment Pet Trialz on Viceland TV, or see her live with the prestigious Toronto comedy collective Laugh Sabbath. She recently made her feature film debut in the comedy-drama Sundowners. Named by Exclaim! Magazine as a quickly rising force in comedy and an “adept comic scene stealer” by The Hollywood Reporter, Jackie has taken her performances across the entire continent.

Courtney Gilmour

A killer combination of sharp writing and warm likability has made Courtney Gilmour one of Toronto’s fastest rising talents. She delivered a breakout performance at the 2017 Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal by winning the Homegrown Comics Competition and filming a set for Kevin Hart’s new LOL Network. Courtney was one of the 42 at Toronto’s acclaimed JFL42 fest and is set to return to Just For Laughs in 2018 for a taping on The Comedy Network. This year Courtney will also be making her debut at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival and the Halifax Comedy Festival where she will film two tapings for CBC  She is a touring comic with Yuk Yuk’s and has previously made appearances on SiriusXM’s Top Comic, The Beaverton, and can be heard regularly on SiriusXM’s Canada Laughs.

Jackie and Courtney will be performing on Saturday, March 3 from 7pm-8:30pm.

Workshop Series A

Megan Linton

Megan Linton is a visibly disabled femme, and mad activist. She is the Current Vice President External Affairs for the University of Winnipeg Student’s Association. She has been lobbying for accessible mental health care for the past several years, specifically around psych health and psych wards, the disability tax credit and within  post-secondary institutions. She has worked with the Canadian Federation of Students nationally and provincially to adopt more accessible spaces. She works to create a campus and community that is accessible to more folks through policy, publishing, and various on-campus initiatives. She has helped with launching 2 more accessible study spaces at the University of Winnipeg, and is working on launching the first self-advocacy student group on campus.

Megan will be presenting at ‘Aesthetic Mental Health’ on Friday, March 2 from 2:00pm-3:30pm.

Mari Ramsawakh

Mari Ramsawakh is a disabled and nonbinary writer and activist based out of Toronto. They’ve written on race, disability, mental health, LGBTQ+ issues, and medicinal marijuana on The Establishment, Bitch Media, Wear Your Voice, and Xtra. They are currently working with the nuance fellowship program, writing on sexual health from a second generation immigrant perspective. More of their work can be found on their website: www.IndivisibleWriting.com.

Mari will be presenting at ‘Disability and Race: A Historical and Continuing Imbalance in Disability Justice’ on Friday, March 2 from 2:00pm-3:30pm.

Workshop Series B

Tammy Bernasky

Tammy Bernasky is a PhD Candidate in Critical Disability Studies at York University. Her research is focused on gender and disability oppression related to violence and economic dependency.

Tammy will be presenting at ‘International Human Rights and Women with Disabilities: Recognizing our Diverse Identities’ on Friday, March 2 from 4:00pm-5:30pm.

Meera Ulysses

Meera Ulysses is a poet, critic, and trans woman studying Equity & Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto.

Mari will be presenting at ‘Divergent States as Instances of Legitimate Knowledge Production’ on Friday, March 2 from 4:00pm-5:30pm.

Workshop Series C

Hilda Smith

Hilda is a vanguard of new and radical social justice work, focusing on disability, addiction, and knowledge mobilization. They believe that knowledge created in communities has the potential to be transformative when shared with other communities, politicians, and the mainstream media. Thus, they have devoted themselves to finding ways to make it easier for marginalized communities to be not just heard, but to have their lived-experience respected and seeked out. As a genderqueer person with multiple disabilities their research stems from their personal experiences in activism and academic. Hilda is pursuing their goals through her PhD in Critical Disability Studies, where she is working with communities to find better ways to share knowledge from marginalized folks.

Hilda will be presenting: ‘TAdapting Knowledge Moblization to Disability Communities’ on Saturday, March 3 from 12:30pm-2:00pm.

Alise de Bie

Alise lives in East Hamilton where they enjoy windowsill gardening purple plant babies and delivering the community newspaper. Despite/even in the midst of vibrant disability/Mad/peer communities, networks, and friend groups, Alise continues to feel lonely as a Mad/disabled student, and is looking to think about this differently – as a matter of justice, rather than an individual problem – and find fellow lonely disabled/Mad people to chat with.

Alise will be presenting: ‘Lonely Cafe: Politicizing Disabled/Mad Experiences of Abandonment’ on Saturday, March 3 from 12:30pm-2:00pm.

Workshop Series D

Siva Thangeswary Sivarajah

Siva Thangeswary Sivarajah is a healer, writer, community organizer, and a recent graduate of York University’s Critical Disability Studies MA Program. His community work comes from a strong belief in self and community healing through storytelling to commit to accessing our ancestral memory. He is a Tamil Saivite individual from Tamil Eelam currently living on Huron-Wendat and Petun Frist Nations, the Seneca and the Mississaugas of New Credit territory.

Siva will be presenting: ‘His Roots had Been Pulled Out of His Soil ‘ on Saturday, March 3 from 3:00pm-4:30pm.


Next to Lead is a partnership initiative between the University of Toronto and the Niagara Centre for Independent Living that aims to support disabled youth in volunteering and in leadership in the community. Using a social justice approach, Next to Lead offers youth participants training and mentorship with leaders of the disability community. Participants of this program have separated into small action groups. AccessAbility is a group of Next to Lead participants focused on pushing for awareness of access issues, greater accessibility overall, and challenging ableism in the community. This group is made up of 6 self-identified disabled youth between the ages 19 and 29 that live in Niagara.

AccessAbility will be presenting: ‘AccessAbility: Access Strengths and Challenges in Non-Urban Areas’ on Saturday, March 3 from 3:00pm-4:30pm.

Workshop Series E

Whitney Hodgins

Whitney Hodgins is the Brandon University Student’s Union Accessibilities Director, and the Accessibility Commissioner of the Canadian Federation of Students Manitoba. Whitney was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was 14. At age 16 Whitney started her step into the advocacy world and since then she’s been steamrolling her way into spaces, specifically in the last year she never thought imaginable. In October she walked the steps of the Manitoba Legislature after rallying with students from across the province for two days, speaking against Bill 31 and why it would hinder students with disabilities and their ability to pull themselves out of poverty. In November she spoke to future Psychiatric Nurses at Brandon University about Asperger’s /Autism and further went on to speak about customer service in libraries for the Manitoba Library Association. This ultimately led to her speaking at Brandon’s Human Rights Day: Brandon without Barriers Lunch and Learn. When not being a kick ass advocate. She is on the frontlines, advocating for her nephew who recently was diagnosed on the spectrum and making sure he has a mentor and a support that she never had.

Whitney will be presenting: ‘The Autism Activist: Shattering the Glass that Divides’ on Saturday, March 3 from 5:00pm-6:30pm.

Nish Israni

As a queer South Asian woman who has struggled with a mental health diagnosis and what it entails, Nish has lived with ‘disability’ for many many years and in that time, has become best-friends with her crazy. She believes in creating spaces that encourage folks to embody their own unique expression of themselves, and to fall in love with who they are; quirks, foibles, idiosyncrasies, passions etc. She believes in building communities that are meaningful, genuine and empowering to those who identify within them. To her, writing is a craft, and words her weapons, wands and balm. Oriented towards social justice since young, Nish is in college getting certified to work with the communities she identifies most with; queer, feminist, women of colour and lastly, as a survivor of/in recovery of intimate/sexual/domestic violence and abuse, the idea of reclamation is one that is important to her healing, and journey back to her most wholesome self.

Nish will be presenting: ‘The pea that she felt, gifts her ancestors gave her’ on Saturday, March 3 from 5:00pm-6:30pm.


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