As a teen, I considered myself fortunate that some of my Catholic friends invited me to the ‘Adapted Aquatics’ swim program for youth with disabilities at the Dalewood Pool. These friends were volunteering through their high-school but more importantly were trying to avoid early Sunday Mass. I was just trying to avoid church. Truthfully, I think the life lessons I learnt in that pool as a volunteer have been as strong as the ones I have learnt later in life when I did return to church.
What I witnessed during those years volunteering was dedication to someone outside oneself, exuberant joy, tears, confidence building and teenage silliness in full force. There was occasionally a bit of pity for those who were ‘different’. The dedication started with the organizers from a local service club, adult leaders, volunteers and families.
There were some tears when a youth could not do something on land. Once in the pool however, there was such a transformation! Some of the youth just wanted to be normal kids with no restrictions, some just wanted to quietly float.
One of lessons I learnt came from overhearing some of adults commenting on ‘…those poor kids…’ who may never be more than a ‘vegetable’. I responded and said, ‘…no, she is my young friend Mary (pseudonym). Mary knows my voice and I taught her how to walk in the pool. She is more capable than you think…’. Participants could set their own goals.
I witnessed frustrations. Some families had a hard time coping. One mother spoilt her child, which was a challenge for volunteers when they had to deny him. Spoiling children does not help, regardless of their ability. Many families just took things in stride and joyfully carried on. That ‘carrying on’ spoke volumes to me for I realized we are all equal.
One of my closest friends is Sally (pseudonym) whom I met in grade seven and who just happens to use a wheelchair.
Another student tried to bully Sally by hitting her, so I ‘…accidentally on purpose…’ tried to run over his toes. Sally had the best fake tickets that we used to put on the car window of someone who took a disabled parking spot that said ‘You took my spot, do you want my disability?’.
Those early lessons raised awareness of poverty issues (low rates), curb cuts, mangled malls (Centre Mall). I am fortunate that I was taught ‘to do a good turn every day’ in Guides. I volunteer to this day (associate member – http://www.routesyouthcentre.ca). I advocate for barrier free public designs that put accessibility first. I email politicians, write articles, preach and speak. I learnt there is no real ‘difference’ in abilities, just attitudes. Others have learnt these lessons too. If not, what I hope you will take away is that someone with a hidden disability (mva pain) or in a wheelchair has much the same dreams and desires: to work, to contribute, not subsist on ‘poverty’ level assistance, worry about venue accessibility.
– Event Management – Convention & Meeting, 2012
Susan J. Creer B.A. 01. Susan has been volunteering since she was a teen, with a focus on disability and poverty concerns. Her background includes professional speaking, theatre (professional and community), teaching acting, event planning.
*This article was originally published in the Hamilton Spectator May 8, 2016. This is an edited version.