Social maker

CANADA: Gift Tshuma, ‘Québécois Black change-maker’, a fervent activist for the disability community

By The Canada Link

CANADA: Named Quebec’s Black Changemaker by the CBC, Gift Tshuma is making his mark as an outspoken activist for the disability community and pushing social norms with his new project: Blurring the Boundaries.

Tshuma, a Zimbabwean-born Montreal artist, has found a way to integrate his passions for music and activism to make music production more accessible to people with disabilities. He balances being the leader of a gospel group and championing the disability community. His activist career began about 15 years ago when he became very disappointed with the lack of accessibility of public transport in Montreal.

He then started a disability rights group that advocated for better accessibility within the public transit system. This early advocacy evolved into Thsuma’s current project called Blurring the Boundaries. Founded alongside business partner Charles Mathews, the organization empowers people with disabilities to play different musical instruments on any device, be it a phone, tablet or computer.

Blurring the Boundaries, a project part of the British Council-funded New Conversations programme, enables producers and performers to work together to make music accessible to everyone. They offer a wide variety of events to attend, such as workshops on sound ideas and instrument development. Although he has gained great popularity in the UK, Tshuma hopes to share his passion around the world.

Through this organization, Tshuma wanted to give people with disabilities a chance to express their artistic side. He wanted to give them a chance that was not available before.

The link sat down with Thsuma to discuss his goals for Blurring the Boundaries, accessibility in Canada and the power of unity.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

Q: What do you think of disability accommodation in Zimbabwe compared to Canada?

A: I feel the same way I feel about accessibility here. It’s frustrating. Resources were not readily available to people with disabilities unless they had money. In my case, I was lucky enough to have the means [them], but at the same time not all my needs were met. Even here in Canada, even though there are more resources for people with disabilities, it is still a challenge considering that it is a developed country. There are still gaps to fill in the education system, in employment — the list goes on.

Q: Can you tell me more about how you incorporate activism into your music?

A: I am a musician and singer. I make my music and lead a gospel band, and as an affiliate I work in digital music and instrument development. My partner, Charles Mathews and I joined forces to create Blurring the Boundaries, [which] promotes musical expression for people with disabilities who do not necessarily have an accessible route [readily available for them] to express their artistic side. He is a developer and programmer and […] we develop musical instruments […] to allow people with different disabilities to play digital instruments directly from their device.

Q: How has your organization evolved over the years?

A: We are relatively new. […] For two years, we have been in the experimental phase where we are testing digital instruments […] and we have received a lot of good feedback to help us improve the instruments we create. We cannot say that our instruments are 100% perfect, but they are on the way to becoming accessible.

Q: What do you think of the impact you are having on the disabled community through this project?

A: It’s exciting to be part of it because it’s something I wanted to have access to when I was younger. Being able to provide and advocate for people like me is exciting. It’s not a one man show, it’s a collective effort to make this possible.

Q: Is there anything specific that strikes you about the way Canadian society deals with disability issues?

A: Generally speaking society is at a point where we are becoming more aware of inclusivity and access issues, and for me that is exciting. It’s better than where we were 15 or 200 years ago. You start hearing about mental health, for example. You are starting to hear about inclusive spaces for gender non-conforming or racialized people and it is exciting that these conversations are coming to light and that these organizations and institutions are now planning to commit to addressing these issues.

Q: If you could send one message to this generation, and specifically to the disability community, what would it be?

A: Don’t be afraid to fight for what you think is right. I understand that fighting and advocating for your needs can be very exhausting. This can take a long time, so collaboration is key when it comes to creating change of any kind. There is power in unity. There is power in collaboration, so don’t fight alone.