Tai Young: "Life is full of possibilities"
Written by Paul Fraumeni
Don’t be surprised if, not long from now, you’re watching a TV series or movie and you see Tai Young’s name in the credits.
The question is just what role will he be playing?
He’s getting a taste of it all now, as he enters his second year in the media production program at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU).
Tai, 19, has even made a start in front of the camera – as the host of a new program on TV Ontario Kids called Dream It to Be It. It will launch this fall. The series encourages kids of all abilities to explore their options for the future.
And that’s very much in line with the way Tai has been living his life.
Tai was born with a blockage that hinders his spine from sending messages to his brain. The condition inhibits his mobility, so he doesn’t have full use of his legs. He’s used a wheelchair since he was a little kid.
And that’s fine with Tai. Using a wheelchair has always been the way he has gotten around, so he accepted it long ago. The problem is getting other people to realize that disabilities are part of life.
“Since I was born with a disability, it’s not been something that ‘happened to me.’ It’s been something I’ve just lived with. So it doesn’t faze me. The real struggle was when I was a kid and I’d see people staring at me and asking inappropriate questions, like ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And I didn’t really know what they meant.”
So, with the support of his mom, Lisa, his dad, Chris and his sister, Taylor, he became an advocate. And quite an active one.
“My parents’ push to teach me the power of my own voice was monumental in the journey it took to get to age 19,” says Tai, adding his launch as an advocate came when he was six. Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital had asked him to be an ambassador and invited him to speak at a special event.
“I sat among donors and adults as I anxiously awaited my big moment at the pedestal. My newfound friends in the foundation were all there to support me and cheer me on. The speech went well. I told the story of my spinal cord injury and talked about how I am no different than any other kid.”
He’s done a lot of speaking since then and that’s still his theme: “I’m just like everyone else.”
But his advocacy isn’t just about talking. When he worked with producer Michelle Asgarali on Breaking Character, a documentary series featuring performers with disabilities, the crew dubbed Tai “The Multi-Hyphenate” in honour of his many talents and interests. An essay Tai wrote helped to start Holland Bloorview’s Dear Everybody campaign – a national movement to end stigma and eliminate bias against people with disabilities. He’s become a passionate and talented athlete in wheelchair racing.
And he believes in actively helping others.
“The pinnacle instance of his character was when we first met,” wrote Asgarali in a letter about Tai. “He was working as a mentor and acting coach for a young, first-time actress with cerebral palsy, who was cast in the lead of a short film – a role he lost. But instead of viewing it as a failure, he had the maturity to see an opportunity to learn more about his field and encourage new talent to grow. Therefore, he worked with her to help her focus, shared strategies to discover her character’s emotions, and prepared and accompanied her for the long hours on set.”
Now, with his EKO scholarship in hand, he’s excited for his second year in media production at TMU – and to move out of the family home in Markham, ON and into an apartment he’s sharing with a friend in downtown Toronto.
But living “where all the action is” also raises an issue Tai believes needs a lot of improvement – accessibility for people with disabilities.
“Getting around in a wheelchair is hard. When I’m in neighbourhoods I like to visit, like Church and Wellesley or Queen Street in Toronto, it’s a toss-up as to whether the buildings will be accessible. Will the elevators be working? Can I get on transit? Will there be enough accessible seats at a concert I want to see? Even though I’m so independent, it’s still hard. Life is full of possibilities. If you have a disability, you should be able to enjoy the things everyone else does. There are a lot of barriers and we need to fix this problem.”
As Tai wrote so eloquently in a recent essay,
“I want to see adapted sports fill up stadiums. Drag queens with mobility devices. TV characters with story arcs that aren’t just about the relationship with their disability. Acrobats in wheelchairs. A world where disability is not ignored. It’s embraced.”
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