It started with a photo.
When Anne Bélanger received her son’s second-grade class picture in 2013, a wave of emotion hit her. While Miles was among his peers, they were grouped together, but he was positioned off to the side in his wheelchair.
Frustrated, Bélanger posted the photo to social media – leading her down a viral tailspin she wasn’t necessarily prepared for. But the mother didn’t shy away from the opportunity to talk about the incident and what it meant for her son or others with disabilities. The moment sparked her passion for advocacy and set the course of her life in a different direction. Determined to create change, Bélanger applied to the Adler University Master of Public Policy and Administration (MPPA) program on the Vancouver Campus.
Bélanger’s son Miles has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). Diagnosed at 13 months, it is a motor neuron disease that causes muscles to weaken, which affects the voluntary muscles used for activities such as crawling and walking, among others. It doesn’t affect cognitive abilities, but Miles has never been able to walk and has used a powerchair for mobility since he was 3.
“I was led into a world in which I had no knowledge,” said Bélanger, who is a yoga practitioner and volunteer in addition to being a mother and student. “My learnings have shown that others may not understand or know how to accommodate for what Miles can or cannot do.”
When she initially posted the class photo online, one of the comments struck a chord.
“Oh my God, nothing has changed. I have the same picture dated forty years back,” said one online viewer.
It was then that she realized not much progress had been made to advance inclusion for people with disabilities. Bélanger was propelled to make changes. She started volunteering and became the president of the British Columbia Chapter for Cure SMA and an Adler MPPA student.
When Bélanger first walked into a classroom at Adler, she knew she’d made the right decision.
“I felt amongst my people. I remember being in class, and suddenly everyone thinks like me about social justice. I felt like I belonged and that I was being seen and heard. It’s everything I hoped it to be, although I had no idea it would be like this,” she said.
Bélanger says she has learned so much about advocacy and herself as a person since joining the program in 2019. Not only has she learned about community and public policy as she hoped, but she’s also gained additional critical thinking skills and a heightened awareness of others.
“You are going to learn things you don’t know. You’ll learn about things you don’t like, and you don’t want to hear, but persist and learn from others,” said Bélanger.
As she prepares for graduation this summer, Bélanger says the most important thing she’s learned is that anyone can make a difference.
“I didn’t know I had a voice. I know I’m strong-willed, but I didn’t know my voice could be this powerful. I am the voice for those who do not have one. At first, I did this for Miles, but now it’s for everyone who will follow in his footsteps.”