When it comes to disabilities, they range from a wide variety of both mental and physical limitations. A disability could vary from someone who has trouble learning, to someone who is paralyzed in a wheelchair. Senior Manager of Accessibility Services at Fanshawe, Suzanne Book, says people forget that disabilities are not always what meets the eye.
“Most of the disabilities are actually invisible. People who have a learning disability, who have ADHD, or who have a mental health issue, sometimes there’s a big stigma attached to that. This often makes people hesitant to come forward.”
Peer support coordinator at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario London branch, Dan Harvey was fully body-abled until one night on a grade eleven field trip on the trampolines.
“As I was running up to the trampoline, I lost my footing and tripped, and fell off the end. There was an adjacent foam pit, and I went head first into the foam pit about 12 to 15 feet down. I landed on the top and fractured the fourth vertebrae in my neck,” says Harvey. As soon as that fracture happened, the bones went into my spinal cord and damaged my spinal cord – leaving me with C4 incomplete quadriplegia.”
Former nurse and present spinal cord injury research coordinator Joanne Courtney says she sees cases like these on a daily basis.
“I recently met a young gal, who is a super “A” student at a university program. Her life goal was to study and be someone who could make a difference in the world. She unfortunately had a bad fall, sustained an acute brain injury and spent months in hospital and is now left with absolutely no function or sensory below her waste…she’s only 21 years old.”
The toughest part about having a disability is facing limitations every day that other people may take for granted.
“What can be most devastating for these types of people is that they do not have any control of how to take care of themselves, mainly their bowl and bladder functions. A lot of people will not have sexual, or will have decreased sexual function as they are highly affected from the waist-below.”
Traditional learning styles also have to be altered.
“An English teacher from my high school came down and did courses with me in the hospital,” says Harvey. “They brought a computer into my hospital room and all of my typing was done with voice recognition software, so I speak into a microphone and it types for me.”
Suzanne says having a disability means often deciding whether the glass is half empty or half full.
“Some people feel that they have more challenges and barriers to certain things, whether that’s getting a job, or not having the same range of choices for professions. Other people see it in a different frame work, they say ‘I’ve been given a great opportunity, I have other strengths that other people don’t have.’”
“These people realized their chapter in their life has changed,” says Joanne. “It’s still their life, they’re still very well, it’s just about taking a different journey and they need to learn to make the best of it. That’s not to say, however, that they don’t go through the typical stages of grief, denial, anger.” Those who work in the industry helping people with their disabilities, like Suzanne and Joanne, they say it’s all about reassuring them that they are never “the other” – just different
“It’s all about inclusion,” says Suzanne. “We are a community as a whole, not a community where we look at one group as people who are privileged and who have access to everything, and then another group of people who will just try to fit in. That’s kind of a medical model, where the whole terminology of abled and disabled came from.”
“Our job is to help them maintain their dignity, their privacy, and show them slowly how they can do these things on their own,” says Courtney. “A lot of teaching, a lot of patience, and a lot of respect for these people is what helps them get to the next stages in their lives.”
Having a disability definitely comes with its struggles – but it’s also a chance to look at it as a blessing in disguise and a time to focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses.