After six months in rehab following a Spinal Cord Injury, I was happy to be back home while nervous and fearful to face my community. How welcoming would my city be to someone who now navigates life in a wheelchair? My fear lied in the multiple obstacles I knew existed. But resuming my activities like before was even harder than I thought.
Life 'as normal?': The need for adaptations in relevant activities.
Even though I was barely out of rehab, I felt I needed to resume ‘life as normal’. As a single mother, being an active participant in my son Thomas’s activities was critical, but navigating that with SCI was a challenge. I knew I couldn’t be the parent who holds him in the pool as it was already difficult for me to stay buoyant on my own. However, I needed to be in that pool. My fear was that if I always asked someone else to do things for me or instead of me, he would eventually relate to that person more than me. And then, what role would I have in his life?
The question was, which pool would allow me to go in the water safely? While not ideal, I found one that would allow me to push myself out of my wheelchair onto the floor (really strenuous), shuffle my way to the edge of the pool, carry each leg in the water, swiftly turn around and let my body go in. And that was the easy part. Going back into my chair was harder (read: very unlikely) for me to do on my own, so it required two lifeguards to pick me up like a dead-weight body and put me back onto my chair. All in front of hundreds of pairs of eyes of parents and children. I was the polar bear in a zoo. Adding to it, sometimes I was told that me being in the water as a second parent was unfair to all the other parents who wished they could also both be in the water.
Rolling through: facing each obstacle that lays in front of us.
When Thomas was 4 years old, I registered him for hockey. I wanted Thomas involved in the big-great-Canadian-hockey-family. But most of the arenas we encountered had NO ramps. Even fewer had accessible toilets. When I wanted to attend a game, my brother and three other strong dads needed to bring me in like Cleopatra. Making an entrance was not my way of being included. And it forced me to always be dependent on someone: what if I wanted to attend the game on my own?
When Thomas was 5 years old, I went to find him a school. I wanted to visit the schools and meet with teachers and principals, maybe even students, yet none of the schools had physical access. None. So, I sent my mom to be my eyes and ears. And thank God for technology: I would get a full report, filled with pictures and sometimes even little videos. But it was never the same as being there.
Doctor’s appointments, movie theatres, play gyms, even most hospitals are often not accessible. Or when adapted, too often people disregard the importance of these features. How many times have I found a delivery truck using the accessible parking space? Or in winter, that reserved parking becomes the perfect spot for all the accumulated snow. I wish more people knew that I do drive on my own and I do chauffeur my son, like every other parent.
Belonging and inclusion: what we all aspire to and deserve.
While it is mentally and emotionally challenging fighting for access and equal rights every step of the way, I have the luxury of doing it as an adult. If I can’t access my son’s school, arena, pool, how can children with disabilities access those buildings? How do they narrate this situation to themselves? Are they able to reassure themselves that they matter, even if society is showing them they don’t? And how will they parent their own children if they can’t access these facilities?
The lack of sensitivity I am faced with on a regular basis makes me feel invisible and irrelevant. The notion of parenthood by a person with a ‘handicap’ is a foreign concept for most. We need to educate everyone about the fact that many Canadian families either have a child with disabilities or is a parent with a disability.
Accessibility is the first step to be included in all aspects of my life and my son’s life. I depend on others for certain things, but others also depend on me. My disability does not impede my ability to parent. But allowing buildings with barriers and making decisions without considering people with disabilities does.