How do you increase public awareness of a cause in an impactful and momentous way, when the budget is limited and the outcome will directly impact a group of people’s quality of life?
That was the mission set forth by the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC) and Cerebral Palsy Association of Manitoba (CPMB) when they asked us to help them promote awareness for a widely unrecognized issue.
Understanding the Challenge
For adults with physical disabilities in Manitoba, government support nearly cuts off entirely after high school. They graduate to a maximum of 55 hours of home care per week, meaning no support to engage in the community, work, see friends, or attend a post-secondary institution.
The campaign was ignited by the human rights complaints filed by Tyson Sylvester and Amy Hampton, both adults with significant physical disabilities with ambitions to continue their education and enjoy the same inclusive environment and supports they’d experienced while in high school.
Tyson Sylvester launched a human rights complaint against the province’s health authorities, frustrated by the lack of services provided to adults with physical disabilities.
PILC and CPMB were eager to drum up interest and the public’s disapproval for these inadequate services, putting pressure on the province’s health authorities to respond to the human rights complaints filed by these two individuals PILC was representing.
Finding the Concept
The isolation and lack of fundamental care faced by adults with physical disabilities was new to most of us at the agency – and took on even more emotional depth when hearing about the injustice from Tyson, Amy and her mother, Charlene. Hearing their stories made our own team uncomfortable, angry, emotional and empathetic to their situation. We knew the public was likely to react similarly if confronted with this reality.
We brainstormed some concepts with our video partner, Wookey Films, and decided to take an experiential approach – making these individuals’ activism public – and to film the public’s engagement to prolong the impact.
With his consent, we locked Tyson in a jail cell in the middle of a downtown park.
Accepting the Risk
Locking a young, vision-impaired, wheelchair-bound man in a jail cell came with a certain amount of risk, and we experienced some push-back as we began to put the pieces in place. However, we accepted the risk for two reasons:
We sincerely believed the concept would achieve all of PILC and CPMB's goals
We had Tyson’s full support
We filmed Tyson making the issue visible to the public for the first time. He locked himself in a jail cell in the middle of Winnipeg’s Old Market Square, a busy spot for the artistic, business and post-secondary communities downtown on their lunch hour.
Staging a real and immersive interaction with Tyson, the issue was poignantly captured by his own lived experience (in pre-recorded audio) – and by his public act. Though visually discomforting, people were encouraged to walk up to the jail cell and listen to a recording of Tyson telling his story, atoning the narrative to one of empowerment and advocacy.
The impact this had on the individuals who engaged with Tyson didn’t stop then, as the event earned media attention, and was recorded and edited into a campaign video, cut to Tyson’s words. The emotional reactions lent to the narrative that society is missing out on these individuals’ contributions, in addition to the grave impact it has on their lives.
What Happened Next?
The video gained plenty of organic traction, reaching over 117,000 people on Facebook, earning over 75,000 views, and – most poignantly – over 1,300 shares with like-minded people wishing to help spread the message of this injustice and align with the cause.
Over 2,100 people have signed a petition demanding better services for adults with physical disabilities in the province, and the province’s health authorities have indicated their preparedness to talk mediation for Tyson and Amy’s cases.
Tips for Risk Takers
1. Take the time to get the support of your partners
Without the courage of Tyson’s public act – as well as the support of PILC and the Cerebral Palsy Association of Manitoba to back a guerrilla tactic that could at first glance be misconstrued – the campaign may not have garnered as much traction, and a more traditional format likely would’ve gotten less attention.
2. Plant some friendly faces in the crowd to ensure anticipated engagement
We were also gambling on the public’s participation and emotional engagement – which proved to be the emotional force the video needed to root the issue in the community at large.
On the day of the event, we invited some friends and family members to come out and kickstart interactions with Tyson. With their interest and participation, on-lookers were made to feel more comfortable joining in.
3. Have a back-up plan
Even with safeguards in place, like friendly faces in the crowd, rooting a campaign in reality means unforeseen circumstances and hypotheses about a crowd’s reaction can go wayward. If all else failed, we could still release the documentary-style interview we recorded previously to set up the experiential piece – so our partners in the project weren’t risking an incomplete project.
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