Day in wheelchair offers road to discoveryBy Mark Parent - Parent in Politics
The Daily News
Thursday, October 31, 2002

I looked at the three steps leading into my house, then glanced at the wheelchair crammed into the back seat of my car and thought, I cannot even get into my own home! For a brief moment, I considered phoning a neighbour to help me, but realized that once inside, I couldnt make supper or go to the bathroom or lie down on my own bed. And so I gave up, opened the car door and walked out, profoundly grateful that I had the use of my legs.

Several weeks ago, I had been challenged as the local MLA by the Occupation Therapists Association to spend a day in a wheelchair. I remember glancing quickly at the invitation and thinking that it would be an easy challenge to accept. As the day approached, however, I began to have cold feet. How would I get in and out of a car? I puzzled as I drove to the occupational therapy department of the hospital where I would be fitted with my wheelchair. However, I was still pretty cocky about my ability to handle the challenges of being a temporary paraplegic without it affecting my ability to do my job.

The therapists gave me a tour of the department and then fitted me for my wheelchair. They pointed out that I had a high-quality chair with adjustable arms, better cushioning than most chairs and tilt protection. Without a medical plan I would have a chair that didnt have any of these extras, a chair that the therapists assured me would be very painful to have to use on a daily basis.

They told me that lack of a program to help uninsured people have access to proper equipment, plus a shortage of therapists, were some of the problems in our health system. If my child needed therapy, they noted, the wait could be anywhere from one year to 18 months.

Pulling out a rectangle board known as a slide board, they reassured me that I would have no difficulty getting into my car. So off we went to the parking lot only to find that although I had parked at the far end of the row, someone had come up beside my car and was parked so that there was no room to manoeuvre my wheelchair next to the drivers door. Not wanting to give up before I had even started, I handed my keys to one of the therapists who backed the car out of the parking spot.

And so began one of the most physically demanding and frustrating days I have had in a long time. My office, which I assumed was handicap accessible, was so only with the help of another person. Even if I could wheel my chair up the small hill to the back door I could not unlock the door and pull it open by myself. My bathroom was totally inaccessible and I had to wheel across to the local Tim Hortons, which had a good handicap washroom.

Even small things such as dips in pavement parking lots became major obstacles. Coming from Town Hall to my office, I ended up in one such dip and could not get out.

I pushed and pushed, almost falling backwards in the process. I kept hoping that some one would see my plight and help me out. No one did, so throwing caution to the wind I tilted the chair back and pushed at the same time, just managing to bump my way to more level ground. However, once out of the pothole, the pavement began to slope downhill and I started picking up speed too quickly, almost breaking a finger as I grasped desperately at the wheels to stop my flight.

The only way I made it through the day without breaking down in frustration was knowing that I could walk if I really needed to and that my challenge was for only one day. What, I asked myself, about those who have to live in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives? I can report from my brief experience that, as a society, we have made some progress, but boy, we sure have a long, long way to go.

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Mark Parent, an ordained minister and member of the Tory party, is the MLA for Kings North.