Dr. Sukaina Dada has been working in the area of children’s health, wellness, and disability rights for over 15 years. She is a paediatric occupational therapist and the founder and executive director of SMILE Canada — Support Services, a Canadian charity that provides racialized children, youth, and their families with disabilities and critical illness support. She holds a Ph.D. in Critical Disability Studies from the School of Health Policy and Management at York University with a research focus on displacement and disablement.
Having spoken across Canada at academic and professional events on various topics ranging from intersectionality and equity to occupational therapy and paediatric healthcare, her grassroots and academic work — including her upcoming book on Disablement and Displacement — Dr. Dada continues to critically challenge systemic practices in healthcare and education.
The moment I knew I wanted to catalyze social change was… I knew I wanted to make a difference when I began navigating healthcare and disability services for my younger cousin Muhammad, who had immigrated to Canada from Tanzania. Muhammad was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy shortly after he arrived; the doctors said he could not see, hear, walk, or talk. Language and cultural barriers made it difficult to navigate the healthcare system, and a lack of social and economic support made living in Canada even more difficult. I realized then that our healthcare and social services were not built for racialized, disabled, newcomer children, and I started SMILE Canada — Support Services.
My mission aims to create a positive impact by… supporting racialized children, youth, and their families — specifically, those who are underserved and underrepresented — through intentional, culturally responsive, relevant, and safe programs and services.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a change leader is… change is difficult, but not impossible. Change comes with hard work, sacrifice, and teamwork — it does not happen in isolation and often happens without recognition. But, it is our conviction and passion that continues to drive change.
My proudest accomplishment is… SMILE Canada. It started as a doodle on a notebook in an undergraduate class, and with lots of hard work, it has grown into an organization serving over 650 racialized children with disabilities and their families. From supporting families to meet their basic needs and advocating for their children’s rights, SMILE has grown into a reputable and reliable organization recognized by so many, including our Prime Minister — an accomplishment I could never have dreamed of, and yet, has now become part of my day-to-day life. I continue to reach out to underserved and underrepresented families across the Country with the hope of improving their well-being in this society.
The biggest risk I took that paid off was… starting a Ph.D. degree with a toddler and a new baby. It was challenging, to say the least. Juggling a complex academic space, motherhood, and working as an executive director at a growing organization meant wearing many hats (well, hijabs, in my case). However, it paid off and taught me to be disciplined, forcing me to prioritize and juggle competing priorities. This academic endeavour has allowed me to grow the research and education side of SMILE, advocating for more equitable healthcare policies.
My biggest setback has been… thinking I must be super-human. When I lost my third child, my newborn Aasiyah, I froze — for days, weeks, and months. For the first time in a long time, I could not work, speak, write, or even get out of bed. The experience humbled me and taught me that as racialized women, we often must prove ourselves as super-human and break this so-called glass ceiling.
I overcame it by… realizing I am not super-human and there is no ceiling for me to break. Our efforts are not in isolation; we walk in the great footsteps of changemakers before us who, too, endured the obstacles of life, and we make an impact to leave the world in a better place than how we found it.
Women, particularly racialized women, must prove themselves repeatedly, but it is not the efforts of one woman, one mother, or one grandmother, but the efforts of us coming together. When it comes to social change, our journeys do not begin and end with us.
One of the most important lessons I’ve gained from my experience within the sector is… we must be critical of the dominant narrative echoed in our literature and media; we have to ask ourselves who benefits from the system we have created and who is being left out or pushed to the margins of society.
I surprise people when I tell them… my parents grew up in poverty. My dad came to the country from Tanzania with nothing and helped put me and my sisters through university. We were the first in our entire extended family to get a post-secondary education.
If I had an extra hour in the day, I would use it to… play with my kids. They fuel my desire to keep working and challenge a system that may not give them a chance because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or faith. I want them to live in a safer space, feel they belong, and have every right to be who they are.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I am privileged to have a village of support. My husband, children, parents, siblings, and many cousins and relatives have always been my support system. Although our WhatsApp group is a bit out of control at times, they are my cheerleaders.
The future excites me because… SMILE is now ready and equipped to expand and assist more people than ever. I have seen us bravely challenge a broken system and critically raise overlooked issues. We have started to expand the organization to other provinces, and I am excited to be able to connect and support more families across the country.