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Tunneling My Way Through University

A while ago, a friend asked me how I coped at university. Thing is… I am disabled and, at the time, only used a manual chair full time for mobility so I understand their curiosity.

Back in the day—the era of the Beatles, All In The Family, and Hair—I suppose it was rather unusual for someone like me to attend university. Not that I knew it. During my elementary and secondary school years, I was the only person in school using a wheelchair, so landing at university being one of a few in thousands was simply another adventure on the path of finding my own way. Albeit this adventure would be with the distant support of my family, which come to think of it wasn’t too much of a concern as I had often been away from home for extended periods of time at camp and the hospital.

The overriding questions during my last years of high school were “What career did I want to follow?,” “Which university did I want to attend?,” and “How was my post-secondary to be funded?” Sound familiar? There was never any question (that I knew of) of my not attending… as one of five children, it was just expected!

Where did my disability actually play a role in my (our) decision-making?

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In some ways, the easiest of the issues was the funding of my university education. All I had to do was apply to qualify. At that time having a certifiable permanent disability meant that I was able to obtain Canadian government funding for yearly tuition, book allowance and a living allowance. Considering that my schoolmates were taking out student loans, I felt that I was one lucky person!

Answers to the questions of what I wanted to be and which university to attend seemed similar to confronting a mass of spaghetti. As far as a career, I tended to lean toward the humanities—math and sciences were definitely not my forte. Having volunteered in previous years in children’s camps, my experience living the life of a disabled person, plus hearing of a disabled person working as a social worker, I decided to do my undergraduate work in the arts. I would specialize in psychology and sociology with the ultimate aim being a degree in Social Work.

With that in mind, I applied to a number of universities including McMaster, University of Waterloo, Carleton and Queen’s. Problem was that all these universities were in the “snow belt.” Snow plus the likelihood of living in a university residence without my family’s help was a conundrum. Needless to say I had learned early in life that wheelchairs, snow, and my physical attributes did not mix! And, wouldn’t you know it, the location of McMaster, the university that offered a Bachelor of Social Work program meant I would face that overwhelming challenge. But luck still lurked in my corner… one of the universities on my list of possibilities, Carleton, had underground tunnels that connected the residences with the other university buildings—problem #1 solved. Not only did it have an underground tunnel system, it offered a Master’s of Social Work program!

Luckily my parents had friends living in Ottawa where Carleton was located who knew of someone my age willing to show me around the campus. What a weekend visit that was! I inspected the residence, the cafeteria, the tunnel system, and a number of the buildings on campus. I made a mental checklist to ensure I figured out how I was going to overcome the potential pitfalls. It ended up something like this:

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Most of the residences were accessible, had level access, and luckily I could easily handle the building’s doors (very few handicapped buttons in those days). The residence I checked out (and ended up living in) had an elevator that took me to any floor including the one with access to the tunnel system.  First and second year students were expected to share accommodation so I checked out the shared bed/study room and washroom. Luckily with a slight rearrangement of the room’s furniture, I had adequate room to maneuver the wheelchair.

The majority of buildings on campus had elevator access to the tunnel system. The tunnel system was awesome, especially if you wanted a daily exercise routine! Distances to classes (there is over 5 km of tunnels) and some of the tunnel inclines saw to that!

Believe it or not, my biggest concern was in the residence cafeteria. How was I going to manage carrying the tray from the food line to an available table? My friend told me not to worry, the staff, my roommate, classmates, and even people I just asked would be glad to help out. In retrospect, she was right… I did not have to worry about losing weight!

If I could get hold of a map, I just knew that it would work! All I had to do was wait to see if my marks were good enough to get accepted!

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Afterward

As with many of us, plans change to adapt to life’s challenges and circumstances. I did get accepted at that university, lived for three years in residence, wandered the tunnels and attended enough classes to receive a Bachelor of Arts. I went on to get a teaching degree (BEd) at Queen’s University. Then wouldn’t you know it—another of life’s left turns—I landed a position as a technical writer for a computer firm (writing user instructions is not that far removed from teaching), and went on to various writing contracts and temporary positions. As I approach my senior years, I even amaze myself at how far I have come from those distant days!

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