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Supporting the citizenship of people with disabilities

Interview with Pat Conrad

Pat Conrad is a long time leader and disability advocate having worked in the field for over 25 years. Pat was executive director of Skills Society from 2006 until her recent retirement in February of 2019. In a conversation with Pat, we explored:

  • The meaning of Engaged Citizenship
  • What she thinks has contributed to the success of Skills Society over the years and
  • A few key learnings Skills Society can take forward into the future

Supporting engaged citizenship has remained at the core of what Skills Society does since its inception in 1981. What does Engaged Citizenship mean to you?

“Engaged citizenship is a two way course.”

Engaged Citizenship is as much about someone finding their place as it is about the community supporting inclusive values and attitudes that welcome people with disabilities. According to Pat, the key to Engaged Citizenship is valuing every person for their unique gifts and talents and making space in our communities where people with disabilities are welcomed and truly belong.

Of course, making this happen can be challenging. Pat discussed negative attitudes and misconceptions surrounding disability as significant barriers to facilitating Engaged Citizenship. Disability continues to be misunderstood by many. In terms of shifting attitudes Pat says, “it’s about one person at a time”. CommuniTEA Infusion and Project Citizenship are just two examples of some of the innovative ways Skills Society is working to tackle this challenge. These projects attempt to bust myths by showcasing people’s unique gifts and talents and creating opportunities for people with and without disabilities to engage with one another ‘neighbor to neighbor’. 

What has made Skills Society successful?

“To be able to thrive moving forward, innovation is going to have to be something you invest in”

A big part of Skills Society’s success has been establishing a strong, creative organizational culture and articulating our 5 core values:

  1. Supporting Engaged Citizenship
  2. Safeguarding Healthy Relationships
  3. Seeking Creative Collaborations
  4. Building and Sharing Knowledge
  5. Embracing Complexity

These core values guide our work and have led to many exciting opportunities. Skills is far from static, it is dynamic! In our conversation, Pat honed in on Skills Society’s creative culture of innovation and drive to seek ‘outside the box’ collaborations as two keys to our success.

Fostering a Creative Culture of Innovation

“We have always had an uncanny desire to want to get better at things”

In our conversation Pat discussed Skills Society staff as eager to learn with a desire and openness to examining current practices to determine what’s working and what’s not. Approaching things with an attitude of ‘experimentation’, staff are able to tweak and make adjustments in their work as they reflect and learn new things.

Seeking Creative Collaborations

“No one does well on their own”

Sharing our work with others and fostering unique collaborations has been key to our success. Pat discussed Skills Society’s willingness to look beyond the disability sector for partnerships and collaborations. This act of breaking down silos, expands who is part of exploring a challenge and makes problem solving better. Skills has a long history of being open to creative collaborations and inviting fresh perspectives in to help see things differently.

What is your most significant learning that Skills should keep in mind to support people to have the best lives possible?

Focus on Possibility

“If we put more energy into possibilities then the good will continue to come”

The work of supporting people to have the best lives possible is not always easy. Many barriers to the inclusion of people with disabilities persist today. Pat articulated maintaining a positive outlook, particularly when times are tough, as one of the most important learnings from her time as Executive Director: 

“There’s always going to be the tough stuff. If we get stressed out and focussed on what’s not happening, we will never get anywhere….we have to celebrate the successes and stay focussed on possibility…the hope, we always have to have hope”

What awaits you in retirement?

“Blissfully having some time to explore things I haven’t had time to do with no ‘I have to’ attached.”

Pat looks forward to spending more time with family and friends, travelling, camping in her tent trailer, and tending to her garden in this next chapter of her life.

From the bottom of our hearts, we want to thank Pat for her stellar leadership at Skills Society over the past 13 years and wish her all the best
in her retirement!


This piece was compiled and written by Paige Reeves, Senior Leader of Research and Social Innovation.

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