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Mari Klassen, ’13 G-’14, is passionate about serving as an advocate to promote and preserve American Sign Language so that all deaf and hard of hearing children have accessibility to language.
“I want to teach our youth how to be involved because this is our future,” said Klassen. “We can’t just sit back and expect that change happens without hard work. I have learned that it is very important to work with other disability groups and to be on committees and in advisory roles within all levels of government for our voices to be heard so that policy and legislative changes can happen.”

Klassen put this passion into action by applying for and being selected to attend the National Youth Forum, held at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) in November 2016. The event, hosted by the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, was part of the Government of Canada’s consultation process to inform the development of planned accessibility legislation and featured a surprise visit from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Noticing that Canada’s federal government was searching for young Canadians to offer input into its new disability legislation, Klassen applied. She was impressed that the government offered the opportunity to complete the application in American Sign Language as well as English or French.

Three key questions were part of the application, and were the foundations for forum discussion: what were the best ways to increase accessibility and remove barriers for Canadians with disabilities, what is the meaning of leadership, and how could the government help youth with disabilities contribute in leadership roles to a more inclusive and accessible Canada?
Klassen was part of a group of 100 youths with disabilities, 13 of which are deaf and hard of hearing, selected to be part of the forum. Divided the group into four groups, Klassen and other participants created notes that will contribute to planned, accessibility legislation.

“This forum was a great opportunity to exchange ideas about how best to increase accessibility and remove barriers for Canadians with disabilities,” said Klassen. “This is the biggest reason why I want to be involved. I want to remove barriers for people with disabilities, and because I live with those barriers every day as a deaf person, I felt I have a lot to share…It is important to have our deaf community’s voice heard since an accessible Canada means access. So many times, because of communication barriers, deaf people are ignored, and we feel invisible.”

Among the issues Klassen presented were employment incentives for deaf and hard of hearing employees, increased interpreter accessibility, recognition of ASL as a language in Canada, loan forgiveness for students with disabilities, improved training for police, and literacy programs.
During the forum, Klassen met and interacted with Trudeau. “Unfortunately, the interpreter wasn’t there, so I used my phone and typed, ‘Just like English and French languages are recognized in Canada, Mr. Prime Minister would you please consider recognizing ASL and LSQ the the language of Deaf Canadians?’ He said, ‘Thank you, I will consider that,’ then signed ‘Thank you.'”

The forum provided American Sign Language (ASL) and la Langue des signes Québécoise (LSQ) interpreters, captioning, and simultaneous translation between English and French.
Klassen credits her leadership experiences at Gallaudet, her involvement in athletics at Gallaudet as well as nationally and internationally, her tremendous involvement with the deaf community, and, importantly, her parents.

“I was very fortunate to grow up with parents that advocated for me when I was young, then taught me to advocate for myself, so I have had a wide range of experiences presenting to government representatives,” said Klassen.

Klassen, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, currently works as a part-time instructor at Vancouver Community College as an ASL program instructor, Douglas College as an interpreting program instructor, and as an ASL specialist with the Provincial Outreach Program: Deaf and Hard of Hearing. She is an 11-year veteran of Team Canada Deaf Women Volleyball, serving her second year as team captain as Team Canada prepares for the 2017 Deaflympics in Samsun, Turkey this summer. Along with her work and volleyball, Klassen enjoys travel, photography, and event planning.

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