By Tim Kalinowski
I was thinking the other day about how far we have come for people with physical impairments in Canada. The thought was prompted by watching Alvin Law’s remarkable interview and story a few weeks back on the news. Law was born without any arms due to side effects from his birth mother being prescribed the horror drug thalidomide. He was given up for adoption shortly after birth, but that worked out to his advantage as his adopted parents empowered him to learn how to use his feet as hands in most things, from eating his meals with a fork at the dinner table to playing a mean tune on the piano or drumset.
Law is originally from Saskatchewan, and as a kid growing up in that province I remember him as a very prominent motivational speaker and host extraordinaire of the yearly Telemiracle fundraiser. Now living in Calgary, he continues to inspire a new generation with his story.
Law was part of a group of amazing pioneers for greater inclusion who emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Others in that rarefied group included Terry Fox and Rick Hansen.
Terry Fox is now more closely associated with his cancer than his disability, but there is no denying the image of Fox hop/running down a lonely stretch of highway, in defiance of all cultural norms of the time, helped Canadians begin to see those with physical disabilities in a new light.
Rick Hansen, a friend of Fox’s who used to play wheelchair basketball with him, decisively burst open the door for enlightenment on his “Man-in-Motion” world tour a few years later. He has continued to be a prominent advocate for people with physical impairments in Canada since then.
Law, in his own more localized way, did the same in Saskatchewan.
And what has been the result? Many alive today cannot remember a time when public buildings did not have wheelchair accesses, public toilets did not have special stalls for those with disabilities, and street corners did not have embedded ramps to making getting up and down onto sidewalks easier. In British Columbia, home of both Fox and Hansen, all public transports have a wheelchair ramp and adjustable front bay to accommodate those with physical impairments. That means a person in a wheelchair can wait at a bus stop and get on any bus without having to call in specialized transport. Many other jurisdictions are now following suit. This has all come about in the past few decades, for the most part.
And on the broader social front people with physical impairments have been elected to public office, held cabinet positions and have served as prominent social and institutional leaders.
There is still a ways to go before we achieve total integration of those with disabilities in our society, but we have made great progress these past 40 years. And it is, in large part, thanks to pioneers like Fox, Hansen and Law.