Calgary Health Trust

2012 Chair-Leaders Enabling Access Calgary

Eighteen local community leaders switched chairs and wheeled their way through the workday on May 4, in the 2nd Annual Chair-Leaders Enabling Access Event.

The event was designed to give the participants a first-hand perspective into what those in the disabled community face on a day-to-day basis by spending their work day in a wheelchair. Going through their everyday routines included getting to and from work on the Handibus, navigating curbs and ramps and using washrooms. 

Sally Flintoft, CEO, Calgary Health Trust found it difficult to lose her independence. "I was expecting it to be challenging but the most difficult part was losing my sense of control of when, where and how I could go someplace."

Chair-Leaders kicked off with participants selecting their wheelchairs and setting out to cross the street to take part in an obstacle course. But participants encountered their first barrier immediately, a broken handicapped accessible door, forcing them to negotiate opening and maneuvering their chairs through the door with no assistance before heading outside. 

The problems weren't confined to Rotary Challenger Park. Calgary Health Trust offices presented Sally with a few issues. One set of cubicles was inaccessible and there was no handicap washroom on the floor. "If I were in the chair all the time that would be a real challenge," she said.

Other leaders who participated, including those in organizations that provide services to wheelchair bound individuals, also ran into barriers in their workplaces.

CEO of the Calgary Handibus Association George Penny thought he had inside knowledge of difficulties that the wheelchair bound faced. "I witness everyday how difficult it is to get around using a wheelchair," said George, "however, actually experiencing a working day was an eye opener."

"I believed our facility was fully wheelchair accessible. Ramps, lifts, bathrooms and automatic doors are all great but when you actually have to maneuver around (and not cheat) in a wheelchair, it brought things into perspective for me and my team."

Taking the challenge even further, Shawna Syverson, Vice President Foothills Medical Centre and Dr. Chester Ho, Head of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, went to the Wheelchair Skills Lab on site to learn how to negotiate the barriers that people in wheelchairs face.

The occupational therapist showed the two how to get up on curbs of various sizes, deal with ramps or hills and negotiate through gravel and other types of road conditions. Most of the tasks involved getting on to the back wheels of the chairs and all of them required considerable upper body strength.

"Like Dr. Ho and I, people who come to the Wheelchair Skills Lab at Foothills are relearning basic skills," said Shawna, "Though our situation is temporary, you really see how life altering a spinal cord injury is when you go through some rehabilitation training. It is so much harder than it looks."

In addition to raising awareness the event collected more than $11,000 from donors. Funds raised were shared between the Canadian Paraplegic Association (Alberta) and Calgary Health Trust in support of the Tertiary Neuro Rehabilitation Program at Foothills Medical Centre, which serves patients and families from Southern Alberta to interior British Columbia and into Western Saskatchewan.

Ultimately, it was a valuable experience even though it was only for a day. 

"This is such an important issue to understand," said Sally, "That said, I knew that I was getting out of the chair at the end of the day, so it wasn't as challenging as it is for someone in a wheelchair all the time or for someone who is learning to live in a wheelchair."

George agreed adding, "It is an experience that everybody should take on - I just wished I had gone to the gym and worked on my upper strength. Overall it was a great day and I will be encouraging more people to take part next year."