Getting Around the Hill in a Wheelchair

Getting Around the Hill in a Wheelchair: I join 10 MPs and Senators in Raising Awareness for the Canadian Paraplegic Association

When I heard about the opportunity to join in the Canadian Paraplegic Association`s Members of Parliament in Wheelchairs Event on May 7th I knew I had to sign up. In particular, I wanted to participate because the idea behind the event brought back memories of a specific incident in my youth.

As a competitive skier I travelled frequently and spent many hours in airports. Once, when I was about 14 or 15, I remember being especially bored waiting in between flights. Spotting a few wheelchairs sitting unused in a corner, I decided to try one out and started wheeling myself around the airport. What began as a harmless attempt to pass time soon became an incredible learning opportunity.

Wheeling around the airport I was struck not so much by the accessibility challenges (although they did exist), but mostly by people’s reactions. Many would pretend not to see me. Some would look and then quickly look away. Others would glance at me with pity in their eyes. A few even clearly assumed that because I couldn't walk I was somehow mentally impaired as well. I was amazed at how no one treated me as a normal person. It was a powerful experience and something that has stuck with me ever since.

Now many years later I am truly pleased that I had the chance to experience a full day in a wheelchair thanks to CPA`s awareness event on the Hill.

On the morning of May 7th, I picked up my wheelchair from the Honorable Steven Fletcher`s office. As the first quadriplegic Member of Parliament and Cabinet Member, he welcomed all Senators and MPs who were taking part in the event. The wheelchair I was given was one that was not equipped with brakes. I quickly learned the limits of the wheelchair in Finance Committee where the slanted floor had me rolling backwards away from the table. I finally had to use my briefcase to backstop the wheel.

After Finance Committee I usually find myself running to make it in time to Operations and Estimates Committee, with one starting directly after the other. This proved especially challenging in a wheelchair, taking three times longer than usual and involving multiple elevators, a sloping tunnel, mobs of school children and concerned or curious colleagues.

The afternoon passed by quickly as I faced numerous challenges. I had to adjust the location of meetings due to the time constraints of the wheelchair, learn how to get by without an umbrella, take care of rain collecting on my lap as I made my way from one end of the Hill to the other and deal with social situations where walls of tall strangers made it hard to successfully join in conversation.

The day finished on a high note with CPA organizing a wheelchair race in front of the Eternal Flame. I had the chance to race against MP Justin Trudeau, a formidable opponent who may have won against me, but had no such luck in his race against CPA Ontario’s Peer Support Coordinator Madelyn Scanlan and the Honorable Steven Fletcher in the motorized chair event that followed. At the end of the many races I was pleased to take home the award for “Fastest Female MP on Wheels”.

It was an incredible and eye-opening day. Eye-opening for those of us in wheelchairs and I hope also eye-opening for the many observers of the event. At the end of the day I was able to get back on my feet. My respect and admiration goes to all those who cannot, and who meet these challenges every day.

I look forward to taking part in this important event next year as the CPA aims to have 65 Senators and Members of Parliament participate in celebration of their 65th anniversary!

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