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Erica Carson-Sami: Building inclusivity, breaking barriers

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Carleton chapter.

Erica Carson-Sami first found herself immersed in the disability community during her undergraduate degree at Carleton University. 

Born with cerebral palsy and having grown up in the township of Russell, Ont., Carson-Sami co-organized an event called Youth Activist Forum during her second year of studies. The event focused on pride, artistic expression, and community building for young people with disabilities from across Ontario. 

More than 10 years later, Carson-Sami still considers the event one of her proudest moments.

“I remember seeing someone’s comments [about the forum],” she said. “Someone wrote about how they used to feel shame, and coming [to the event] made them realize that they could be proud of who they were. It touched me so much.”

Co-organizing helped Carson-Sami discover her passion for disability-focused social work. She graduated from Carleton with a bachelor’s degree in women’s and gender studies in 2013, and then a master’s degree in social work two years later. 

She wanted to help people with disabilities find their strengths and not focus “on what society thinks is a negative trait,” she said.

Now, in 2024, she runs CARCO Disability Strategies, helping people with disabilities develop the skills and mindset they need to reach their goals. 

“I think we all love to know that we’re making a difference.”

— Erica Carson-Sami

In her past work with government organizations, Carson-Sami said she felt like she “wasn’t able to go the extra mile” for clients with disabilities. 

Wanting to work directly in supporting her clients’ journeys inspired her to found CARCO last October. She wanted to create the type of service she didn’t have access to as a teen or young adult, Carson-Sami said. 

A key aspect of Carson-Sami’s work is developing self-advocacy and confidence in her clients. People with disabilities encounter barriers every day, she said, and advocating for accessibility and accommodations is a necessary skill. 

CARCO also launched advisory services in January to help employers, educators, and medical professionals better support the people with disabilities they interact with. 

“By just offering [my] services to disabled people, I wasn’t acknowledging that it’s a two-way street,” Carson-Sami said. “You have to have an employer who’s empathetic and willing to help, and you have to have an employee who can ask for what they need.”

Standing up for herself and working through barriers are skills instilled in Carson-Sami by her parents. CARCO is named in their honour — the word is a combination of her father’s last name, Carson, and her mother’s maiden name, Coyle. It is also repurposed from CARCO Food Services, a vending machine company once owned by Carson-Sami’s parents.

She was the youngest of three daughters and the only child with a disability, Carson-Sami said, but she thinks her parents raised her well. They “found a great balance” of talking about her cerebral palsy and never making her feel ashamed without making it the centre of their attention, she said.

On her website, Carson-Sami describes herself as a “proud member of the disability community.” Her lived experience and pride have been important in her work with clients at CARCO, she said.

Carson-Sami recalled being able to tell when one client in particular re-examined their issues and self-image after seeing Carson-Sami’s pride as a woman with a disability. 

“I kind of saw that click for them,” she said. “Just knowing that I made them rethink how they saw themselves and feel a bit lighter at the end of our sessions was really invaluable.”

CARCO’s first four months have been “rewarding,” Carson-Sami said. She is looking forward to helping businesses become more inclusive and expanding her reach through funding partnerships. 

“I think we all love to know that we’re making a difference.”

Maia Tustonic is HerCampus Carleton’s Events Director for the 2023/24 academic year. She oversees and manages the hosting of social gatherings and philanthropic events designed to engage both HCC members and the greater Carleton community in HerCampus’ mission and values. As a HerCampus Carleton contributor, Maia writes about entertainment, lifestyle, and women’s and 2SLGBTQ+ issues. Beyond HerCampus, Maia has previously worked as a Communications Assistant with YouthWrite Society Canada and a Content Writer for Desserts App. During the academic year, she enjoys engaging with the Carleton University community, and volunteers her time with the Campus Activity Board and as a notetaker for the Paul Menton Centre. Maia is also a reporter for the Charlatan, Carleton’s independent news publication, where she contributes to national and news coverage relevant to the university’s students. Currently in her second year of undergraduate studies, Maia is pursuing a Combined Honours degree in Journalism and Political Science, with a concentration in International Relations and World Politics. She is a 2023 recipient of Carleton University’s Sparks Family Undergraduate Scholarship in Journalism. As both a committed news junkie and pop culture girlie, Maia is happy to get lost in conversations about everything from Canadian foreign policy to the latest celebrity scandal. When not following a story, Maia can be found catching up on her TBR list, watching F1 racing, or humming and dancing to her favourite songs.