Hundreds of thousands of children and youth in Canada live with a disability of some kind, but what often holds them back from leading full lives isn’t their disability; it’s the discrimination they face.

That’s why Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto has launched a national public awareness campaign dedicated to breaking down disability stereotypes and forcing all Canadians to reexamine their prejudices.

The five-year campaign is called “Dear Everybody” and it allows kids who face medical issues to let the world know they are not defined by their disabilities.

The campaign began with oversized installation in Toronto’s Eaton Centre the public could read messages directly from kids and youth with a disability.

“The campaign is entirely in the voice of kids,” Julia Hanigsberg, the CEO of Holland Bloorview, told CTV’s Your Morning Tuesday. “These aren’t lines composed in some glass tower by some PR whizzes. These are the children we work with every single day at Holland Bloorview.”

The messages include such things as:

  • “Talking to someone with a disability like they’re a baby is rude.”
  • “Holding a door can change someone’s day.”
  • “Not everyone with a disability looks like they have a disability.”
  • “Advocating for your own inclusion is tiring.”

Maddy Hearne, one of the campaign’s youth ambassadors, says she’s faced plenty of discrimination because of her brain injuries. She’s undergone six concussions and now lives with lingering effects, such as dizziness, headaches, and nausea.

She now often needs to wear headphones and sunglasses to protect herself from overstimulation that exhausts her brain. But she says it was a struggle to get administrators at her school to understand why she needed these devices.

“My school didn’t want to accommodate my needs and made it as hard as possible for me to benefit from any accommodation I needed,” she said.

One of the hardest parts of her condition, though, is that she has lost her circle of friends.

“Only one or two friends have stuck by me,” she said.

“At school, I suffered a lot of stigma. Friends would see my earplugs and sunglasses and they really put distance between myself and them. They put up this awkward space, which wasn’t really nice.”

In fact, Hearne’s experience isn’t unique. Holland Bloorview says that 53 per cent of kids with a disability have either no close friends or only one. They are also two to three times more likely to be bullied than kids without disabilities, and tend to have lower participation rates in camps, recreational activities, summer jobs, and more.

Many kids with disabilities routinely experience staring, whispers, and social exclusion. One-third of people with disabilities say they have been denied a job because of their disability, which is likely part of the reason why only 49 per cent of Canadian adults with physical and mental disabilities are employed.

Hearne says what she wants more than anything is to be treated like anyone else.

“I want people to know they shouldn’t identify me by my disability, they should identify me by my name, Maddy,” she said.

A website created as part of the campaign,, includes tips for parents to ensure their kids have inclusive friendships. There are also tips for teachers, and tips for anyone who wants to help change the stigmas that those with disabilities.

“Check out the tips that are there,” advises Hanigsberg. “Think about yourself, as a parent, as an employer. Find out ways to make change.”