Erin Arbuckle: Fighting for respect for the disabled
Written by Paul Fraumeni
Photo credit by Jenna Gernon Photography
The first time Erin Arbuckle auditioned for a stage play, it was a local production of Charlie Brown in her hometown of Winchester, ON. She didn’t get the gig. Instead, she worked behind the scenes and painted a school bus.
But she didn’t give up.
Not long after that, when she was in grade nine, she tried out for a part in a production of Oliver Twist in Russell, not far from Winchester. She got it – she played a pickpocket.
“From the first rehearsal, I knew acting was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she says.
After that pickpocket role, she acted in a number of other plays and even had a small part in a Hallmark movie, Christmas Unwrapped.
Now, at 20, Erin is taking her love of acting to the next level – this past September she started her first year in the performing arts program at Algonquin College in Ottawa.
But her passions don’t end at acting. Erin is also an accomplished figure skater. In fact, her skating performances have earned her a spot at the Special Olympics national competition in Calgary in February of 2024.
Once she’s finished her studies in the performing arts at Algonquin, Erin intends to spread her skills even further with enrolment in Early Childhood Education at college.
And Erin has already demonstrated her skill in working with children.
“I have spent years observing students at the Special Olympics sessions. Erin is the first to welcome new skaters, to encourage others and cheer for her peers,” says Sherri Anderson, Erin’s Special Olympics coach in Ottawa.
“We have a newer, younger skater who has been coming for the past few years. He requires one-on-one attention and a significant amount of work. Erin has willingly demonstrated certain moves to help us with this student, including pretending to fall, to encourage this young boy to skate independently without fear.”
Erin knows what it’s like to have the help of others to overcome challenges. Since she was born, Erin has lived with a rare condition called Koolen de Vries Syndrome (KdVS). It plays out differently with those who have it. For Erin, she has a mild learning challenge, low muscle tone and dyspraxia, which results in some difficulty in coordinated movements.
She credits her mom, Angela, as her number one supporter. “She’s fought for me since the day I was born. If a teacher doesn't think that I should do the work that all the other students who aren't disabled are doing my mother will fight for me and be like, ‘things should be fair here.’”
She also has high praise for her teachers and skating coaches. “They treat me like everyone else and like me for who I am.”
And as others have stood up for her, Erin wants to stand up for people with disabilities and calls for a halt to an insulting term: what she called “the R word.”
“That word is so offensive to people living with an intellectual disability. When people use it, even casually, they are saying I am not good enough or smart enough to live a full life like they are living, and that is just not true. There are other words people can use instead of the R word and I find myself reminding people of these different choices regularly.”
She wants to use her work as an actress to not only promote the elimination of the R word but to encourage more visibility for people with disabilities in movies and on TV.
“It’s weird to me that entire shows exist where there isn’t a single person with a disability. While production teams have done a better job lately at getting more diverse people to play these parts, more can be done. People want and need to see people like them represented on the screen, and that includes those with a disability. This increased visibility will also force people to realize that disabled people are capable, confident, smart, strong, and deserving of respect.”
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