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A Will And A Way : Rosanne's Storyby Rosanne Laflamme
translated by Marc Plourde with Robert Guy Scully
I am thirty-nine years old, going on forty. And yet I've barely begun to live. I have just discovered that I am a woman, a human being, and that as such, I can indulge in certain joys. Now I know that, though I am missing three limbs, this does not in the least take away my right to love, to please, and to enjoy myself.
These questions on the "right to live" do not occur to normal people: they are in fact the questions put by one of society's fringe elements; those who feel uneasy about their bodies and themselves. Normal people don't ask whether or not they can live, they go ahead and live.
When I look back on my past, I see long days, black and empty. Empty enough to make one cry out, from fear and anguish... I lived in darkness, not daring to face the light of day, for fear that seeing me, it would disappear. Only when I was all alone, in the privacy of my room, did I allow myself to interweave fantasy and reality: I would then dream of going out, of standing in broad daylight, as if the sun could have erased those sad hours spent in solitude.
I was "possessed" by a spell of depression that went on for twelve years. That takes a big chunk out of one's life, in no time. During these long, bleak periods, I hated my body, I detested those crudely-made stumps that kept me away from other people. I was inhibited, ill-at-ease in a society that valued uniformity, while categorically rejecting anything outside of the norm. I lived a completely withdrawn existence, I deprived myself of a normal life; indeed, how could I have been a good wife, a good mother, or even still, an efficient employee, while I was handi capped by the loss of three limbs? This is what I was led to believe everywhere; I was only an "invalid" who would never make something of herself, and who would depend on others throughout her entire lifetime.
For a long while, I endorsed these prejudices: I was afraid of having a normal social life. I distrusted people, I always wondered if they spoke to me out of pity, or out of sympathy. I had confidence neither in myself, nor in anyone else; when you feel uneasy about yourself, when you do not accept yourself, and do not like yourself, you cannot appreciate other people, it's beyond your reach.
I vegetated in my miseries, my debilities and incapacities, for twelve years. My handicaps put me to sleep. I ruined my youth, my adolescence, nurturing my misfortune. I was certain that I would never be of any use to anyone for anything, and that I'd only be a source of annoyance and distress to my family and friends. I had lost the desire to live, and above all, the desire to struggle.
Today I am proud to be free and independent; I feel totally liberated from that burdensome past which I've managed to overcome, with trouble and hardship. I have a job and friends, I give lectures, and I am active in most sports; I've hardly the time to be bored, and I no longer have any desire to indulge in self-pity.
But it was long and hard, I'll admit. I acquired the willpower to rise above my state thanks to little hopes that grew onto my sheltered life. Deep down, I had a stubborn will to live, despite everything; I believe that those bits and pieces of hope were what kept me from being complacent. My character toughened with each new disappointment that stunned my naive view of things.
I am headstrong, even pigheaded: that's what saved me. But I owe my present situation, above all, to the trust and friendship that certain people bestowed on me. By strongly advising me to go back to school, when I was already 24 years old, Mrs. Julienne Roy, a social worker, prompted me not only to learn a profession, but to completely alter my existence as well. As for Mr. Raoul Brochu, he allowed me to outdo myself, by giving me a chance to teach at O'Sullivan College, in Limoilou. By thus showing their faith in me, these people helped me to believe in myself.
I, Rosanne Laflamme, now had a work environment, I was becoming more and more autonomous and, what is more, I was gaining self-confidence. Liberating myself from my family milieu, and landing a job, allowed me to gradually free myself from insecurity, inhibitions, and allowed me to assert myself as a woman.
On July 18th 1940, I was three and a half years old. I've been told that on that morning the millet fields shone in the sun along South Rural Route, where my father, Edgar, and my mother, Rosa, had settled, three miles from Saint-François-deMontmagny, a small village.
My father was beaming with joy: the hay had grown tall and thick, the crop would be good this year. He harnessed the horses, and climbed up onto the harvester, whose blades he had just finely honed. This was to be his first day of reaping, and he hoped to spend many hours in the fields.
My mother was confined to bed: Jean-Paul, the little boy she had given birth to three days before, was sleeping beside her. Though the delivery had gone well, Doctor Langlais had strongly advised her to take a full week's rest.
According to my parents, at the age of three, I had two passions: potato bugs, which I'd chase with a jar (for keeping them in), and wild strawberries, which I'd eat as fast as I could pick them. So when my uncle Arthur took me by the hand to lead me to a patch where a few strawberries still dared to hide, I surely followed him with glee. No doubt I was elated with the joy of finally discovering those last tiny strawberries, growing near the ground, in the shadow of the tall weeds in the millet field.
The weather was magnificent and Edgar worked hard at reaping, surrounded by the hum of his machine. Caught up in his work, he neither heard nor saw the little girl who ran to him, happy to see him, shouting his name.
Once he'd understood what had happened, he jumped to the ground ... but it was already too late. The jagged scythe had caught me, then spit me out in pieces. He howled with despair at the sight of me: my legs were severed below the knees, my right arm was cut off at the elbow, my left hand had three fingers missing, and my buttocks were stripped of flesh.
Then the blood suddenly stopped flowing; alerted by my father's screams, a hired hand at our next-door neighbor's had come to apply his "charm": he could stop blood. I was saved...
I am often told that nobody at that moment really believed that I would come out of it alive. It's no doubt for this reason that when I was admitted to Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Levis, the sisters went so far as to tell Doctor Langlais that "Maybe she'd be better off dead" ... Doctor Paul Racicot, the surgeon who immediately sowed up my flesh, did not think that I would survive either: so he didn't bother to make good-looking stumps.
Even today there are many people who still remember this accident. The press, which had got hold of the news, carried it all over the province. In the village, this event became the main topic of conversation for many months. Driven by curiosity, people came from everywhere to see me: they chatted with my parents, examined me, gave me gifts and then left to tell their friends about "the phenomenon". They even went to the cemetery where my arms and legs had been buried. When I go back to visit my parents, they talk to me about it as if it had happened just yesterday...
I apparently stayed in the hospital for two months, constantly under the effect of powerful drugs that finally made all my hair fall out. I was pampered by the personnel, my parents' friends and the villagers, who no doubt felt pity for me.
They say that when I came back home I quickly learned how to fend for myself, thanks to an extraordinary invention by the village shoemaker. He fashioned some special leather soles for me; fastened to my knees, they let me run wherever I liked. Wearing these kneepads, I could climb trees, jump over streams and follow the other children; thus transformed into good feet, my knees took me everywhere.
By getting me these pieces of leather, my parents unknowingly spared me the agony of a wheelchair, which would have surely paralyzed my energy and curbed my desire to live. They accustomed me to managing without the help of this instrument which, in any case, they didn't have the means to buy me.
My father never got over this accident: for several weeks he could not sleep, tormented by unwarranted remorse. Even today, he can still barely approach the subject; whenever I ask him questions, he shies away...
And yet, I owe my rehabilitation to him and to my mother. By not overprotecting me, they let me enjoy those hours of unconscious freedom which every child knows. They didn't spoil me nor pamper me, and that was a good thing. They loved me simply, naturally, sincerely. They didn't need to consult books on psychology to bring me up: their hearts spoke for them. My three brothers and two sisters also played a large part in my re-education, by including me in their games and by involving me in their activities.
My parents never complained about their lot, and yet they must have worked hard to buy the different apparati I had to use for legs. But they'd always been used to the hardest kind of work: my father had to be both a farmer and lumberjack to make ends meet. In the summers, he farmed the land and took care of his small herd of livestock; winters, he would go off to lumber in Lac Saint-Jean, or Val-Cartier, or Saint Raphaël. My mother, a native of Saint-Georges, Windsor, in the Eastern Townships, was working in a factory in New Britain, Connecticut, when she met my father, and they both decided to return to their country to buy a farm. She is a good farmer's wife, able, patient, industrious, not afraid of work.
Furthermore, she's the one who patiently told me all the facts I've just disclosed; she has always spoken to me openly about the "accident", carefully revealing every detail. That's how I learned what happened exactly on July 18th 1940, the day that determined my whole life.
One of the great problems a handicapped person encounters is facing and shouldering his abnormality. Every day he must face mockery, insinuation and prejudice, and if he hasn't accepted himself, then he is crushed before he even starts.
A handicapped person's first social test is school; there, he learns how to don the armor which will protect him from the sly attacks of children his own age. At the age of six, I went to the local one-room school, which took in forty students; I was determined to wear those very hot and very heavy wooden artificial legs my parents had bought me: I positively wanted to be the same height as my classmates, even if to manage this I had to wear leather straps, that held up legs weighing five pounds each, every day.
My first legs, however, were not very aesthetic: crude and bulky, they did not succeed in concealing my handicap, which drew many ungracious remarks. They used to call me "the invalid", or "penguin" : I was the one who didn't walk like the others.
But children are not malicious through dishonesty, they are better able than adults of adapting themselves to situations out of the ordinary, and will quickly modify their feelings. When I entered the Soeurs de la Congrégation convent, for my profession of faith, I made many friends; surrounded by the nuns' affection and by my classmates' friendship, I enjoyed many happy hours.
Though I was very enthusiastic about learning, I had to give up the convent's rigid life barely a year later, when I started seventh grade. The schedule was too heavy for my physical capabilities; I studied hard and I took part in all extra-curricular activities, besides having to rise at six a.m. for Mass, attending classes, and going to evening Vespers. Instead of asking to be freed from certain obligations, I persisted in following the same routine as the other convent girls, always because I didn't want to be set apart. Under the recommendation of a physician who diagnosed a nervous breakdown, and overall fatigue, I had to give up school.
From that moment on, resignedly, I became familiar with loneliness. I spent my adolescence crocheting, weaving, embroidering, taking care of flowers, stacking wood and, above all, asking myself what I'd do in life, with no schooling. I stayed on my parents' farm, far away from the village and from my friends, which didn't allow me to have close ties with young people my own age. On South R.R. the winters were long, for a young girl who often found herself dreaming of Prince Charming!
I bottled up those feelings and hopes which a seventeen-year old girl experiences, for fear that I would be laughed at. Could a handicapped girl really hope to make a man happy someday? While I was seeing one particular boy from the parish, for about six months, this question did not torment me: I was perfectly happy. Till the day he decided to break off our relationship, under the influence of friends who convinced him that he should not needlessly burden himself with an invalid.
Six months of happiness which brought me, in turn, ten years of depression: I paid a high price for my first romance... When I saw my first love leave me, I lost the will to live and to experience love anew: I shied away from men, their fine promises and compliments, and I couldn't help but blame what had happened on my infirmity. I was deeply ashamed of this, my body, which was both mutilated and covered with psoriasis, for it classified me as unattractive. I saw myself as an abandoned girl, condemned to solitude.
I knew very little of dance halls, group outings, or those merry escapades and romances that adorn the weekends and evenings of young people. And I regret it very much today: very few colorful and attractive memories hark back to my youth. I've so much lost time to make up for, now that I'm thirty nine, and have a lot less vitality and freshness.
I only began working at the age of twenty, first as a general maid in households, then as a cook in Montmagny Convent. The wages were poor, and the work hours were long, but I wanted to know city life at all costs, and above all, I wanted the joy of working and earning money. These initial experiences convinced me that I was capable of good housekeeping and that eventually I would work in a more interesting, better-paid field.
But the job market does not favor the handicapped, because employers don't want to bother with invalids. So those of us who wish to earn a living in the normal fashion must first win an initial victory: we must find a job. I'd gotten up enough courage to go to a Manpower Center in Quebec City, a social worker was quick to let me know that to live independently, I would have to have all the odds in my favor. "Rosanne, you ought to go back to school, she said to me, because now you haven't the qualifications required to get a job on which you could live decently."
Go back to school? That meant joining a class made up of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-year old students, while I myself was twenty-four, and hadn't finished seventh grade. The idea of returning to school terrified me: I didn't see how I could manage to mix every day with young people of another generation and another mentality. I was afraid of being set apart, of being forgotten in a corner. In spite of all this, and with some hesitation, 1 agreed to enter a secretarial, course which would last two years. I started working with such determination that, though I had several years of catching up to do, I was able to complete the course a year early. I was working round the clock for I knew that I was going through a decisive stage in my life. More than anyone else, I wanted to earn a place in the sun.
In school, I met some wonderful girls who urged me to step out, to go to discotheques and movies. Those were good times! I was living on financial aid granted me by the government. I was not rich, but I was making ends meet. For several months I lived in a room in a family boarding house that took in convalescents. The atmosphere was not very conducive to studying and I had to move; then I stayed for three years in a tiny room, till the day came when I could no longer stand my neighbor, who would have fun every night by "playing" his power saw. At present I live in Limoilou, in a small three-room flat not far from the business college where I teach.
Today I make my living as a French and English stenography teacher: I teach at O'Sullivan College in Limoilou, the very spot where I completed my studies. At the time I started school, I never would've dared think that one day I'd become a teacher: at the most, I hoped to find a little secretarial job somewhere.
The day when the principal asked me to replace a teacher who was leaving this institution, I couldn't believe my ears. Me, teach? Give lessons to students, some of whom had been my fellow classmates? How could I face a class and take on the teacher's role, when I myself had been a student just a short time before? Quite a challenge!
I've been practising my profession now for thirteen years and I no longer feel any of the self-consciousness that gripped me the first time I found myself alone before thirty students, I gained self-confidence, and I discovered many little tricks that make life easier. I never have the slightest difficulty with my students, and they quickly learn to think of me in the same way as their other teachers. At first, salaries were low. However, work conditions have improved with the years. These past two years, I've taught evening classes to adults at Notre-Dame-de-Roc-Amadour, a job I've since left to devote more time to my public life. Today, I can get by on thirty-five hours of work a week, rather than on fifty-four.
Thus, 1963 marked the beginning of a new life which I held onto with all my strength, with fingers crossed, hoping that this time luck was really with me, and would allow me a few moments of happiness.
I've often thought of suicide... and the Maskinongé Bridge has witnessed my indecision, as I paced it up and down, with an empty heart, eyes staring into the water.
But I never went through with my obsessions. To attack one's own body demands a lot of courage, and I also thought of my parents, who would have to endure another torment.
In those bleak moments, I would try to shed this rebellious life that had given me no satisfaction whatever up to then. I felt useless and, even worse, I felt like a burden; that's why I often wanted to die. I did not believe in happiness, and I really thought that it was something other people had a right to. Though I was a believer, I knew how to avoid the sweet delusion of a miracle solving all my problems. Religion brought me only slight consolation, which was nevertheless of some use in moments of depression.
I knew many men, I had many affairs, but still they've never brought me the happiness I want. For two years I was in love with a young Italian sailor I had met in a dance hall; we used to write to each other and every other month he'd come to see me. Everything was going fine between us, till the day he phoned to say that he'd just got married and would like me to meet his wife. I had a lot of trouble getting over this affair, all the more so because it was a bitter reminder of the one I'd lived through at seventeen. Later on, I went out with a Frenchman, who became, through the years, a very good and fine friend. I find foreigners most attractive and I like their company so much that I've taken courses in English, Spanish, Italian and German, the better to communicate with them.
But for a long time these relationships were undermined by the fact that I was shy and inhibited, from being both fat and handicapped. I had no confidence at all in myself and I even reached the point where I was always wearing a sweater over my shoulders, to hide my infirmity. I was ashamed of myself, when I went to dance with friends from school, for if a boy asked me onto the floor he would often drop me right after the first dance, having noticed that I was physically handicapped. Yet these evenings enabled me to make many friends and, above all, to lose my timidity toward men. At last I could have the pleasure of going out and knowing interesting people: coming into contact with this turbulent and joyful world, I learned how to relax, how to become less retiring, and more sociable.
Today I often go out alone, and I'm no longer ashamed in the least to show my arm. If a dance partner pleases me, if he's likeable, I'll even go so far as to tell him that I'm also wearing two artificial legs, But most often I must prove these assertions by allowing the charming young man to discreetly touch my prostheses. Some dance partners I only knew for an evening would often make me laugh, since they were unaware of my secrets; I, for instance, remember those two men who, touching my knees, exclaimed: "You've got high boots", or again: "You're wearing a cast, were you in an automobile accident?"
Once I even came close to causing a coronary. I was sitting in a restaurant when a man nearby cried out: "Everybody's got a heart, two legs and two arms!" At that point I couldn't help unfastening my artificial leg and handing it to him, to show that his reasoning did not hold. I swear I didn't know that this man had a heart condition...
But the funniest incident that ever happened to me surely took place on that cold, -29°C winter's morning, I was on my way to work, wearing shoes, my legs simply covered with nylon stockings, when a man well along in years approached me: "Miss, aren't you cold? Is it because you're not very well-off that you're walking around with so little clothing?", while I was tried in vain to explain to him that I was not cold. After a few seconds of discussion, he took out a wad of bills from his pocket, saying to me: "Here, go buy yourself some boots, you'll be warmer". It was a sight to see, as he ran off, when I told him that with two artificial legs I didn't need warmth so much as comfort...
Moreover, on several occasions I've had the opportunity to make friends laugh. 1 remember the time we were staying in a Montreal hotel, and my girlfriends dared me: "Rosanne, you're not brave enough to take your legs off and go answer when the bellboy knocks at the door". They doubted my daring. That poor waiter! Seeing me, he almost dropped the tray he was holding, with just one hand...
It is said, in many quarters, that the handicapped should neither marry among themselves, nor with normal people. Many think that we wouldn't be able to make our husband, wife or children happy. Even the Catholic church will often hesitate to give its blessing to such marriages, These prejudices are immoral and have a racist mentality to them. I personally know many couples who complement each other marvelously, often better than so-called normal couples. As for me, I wouldn't hesitate to marry a handicapped person, provided that he had learned how to get along on his own. Furthermore, I wouldn't feel the least bit ashamed of marrying a normal man, for I know very well that I could make him just as happy as any other woman. Whatever you may think, the handicapped have feelings, they are sensitive and can generally have sexual relations.
I am no longer looking for the ideal man who used to occupy my thoughts when I'd imagine myself married, surrounded by many children and a handsome husband. Now I'm used to living alone and planning my spare time in the way that best suits me; besides I'm too old to have children, the most I hope for is to someday meet a man who'll love me for what I am.
When you are both handicapped and a woman, it's not easy to free yourself from your infirmities, as well as from social contingencies as well. To earn respect in the world of normal people, and in a man's world, you must do twice as much work, you must show above-average efficiency. You are forever called upon to outdo yourself, to take up the challenge, jockeying for a spot in the background. Lower pay, bad jobs, prejudice and unjust standards, these are the criteria which presently govern the socio-economic life of women, and of the handicapped.
My life was like a lengthy divorce, and only at the age of thirty-four did I finally give birth to my new personality. Mentally liberated from my handicaps, I learned how to live with all of life's benefits and inconveniences. I henceforth accept the rules of the game: I will fight to my last breath, I will take up every challenge I am faced with, and I will cast off complacency and fatality, so as to constantly outdo myself. I will write my creed with cuts and scratches. This statement of purpose is a hair's breadth from vain pride, but at least it has the advantage of fending off resignation, which led me down a dead-end road for so long. It's only with will power, with determination, and even, if need be, with vanity, that you can succeed in getting untangled; you must not allow yourself a single moment of weakness, or of false compassion, if you wish to remain standing, with your head held high.
I only found real escape from my lethargy at the age of thirty-four, that is, ever since I learned how to respect my body, how to like my body.
I was very fat at the time, weighing 170 pounds, My body was covered with rolls of fat, piles of fat, even though I tried various diets picked up from magazines. Besides having to bear this excess weight, I was always ashamed to look at myself in a mirror: I was forever running away from myself. After various experiments, I decided to join Weight Watchers and thanks to this organization's program I was able to lose 45 pounds, after six months' effort.
My friends no longer recognized me, and I felt that I was truly reborn, at least physically; all the more so since I'd also managed to get rid of the psoriasis which had covered my body for nearly thirty years: three twenty-one day stays in the hospital had given me a new skin, clear of those dry, whitish scales that had once spoiled it.
Chance then led me to the Society for the Handicapped in Quebec City, (since I'd never wanted to associate with handicapped people). For along time I'd been used to getting along by myself, and I didn't feel any need to join in with my own kind. For some time though, I'd been feeling very much alone: my girlfriends were all married, and I could no longer go out as before. So out of sheer boredom I showed up at the Society, where Pauline Demers, herself a polio victim, gave me a warm welcome and convinced me to join their team of volunteers. Nevertheless, it took me a while to overcome my apprehensions, because I was afraid of becoming part of a circle of handicapped people. The only handicapped persons I knew at the time were those I'd met nastily and haphazardly, during a fitting at the prosthesist's.
It was at the Society's annual dinner that I realized, for the first time in my life, that I was not someone to be pitied, and that there were people much worse off than I. I felt sick to my stomach, as I watched, for two hours, the four hundred handicapped guests, many of whom were unable to eat by themselves. I felt nauseous, and leaving the hall I promised myself that I would never again seek out the company of the handicapped.
Because of self-centeredness, and a certain indifference which we allow ourselves, we quickly forget that there are beings who need us. After thinking, after feeling tormented for hours, I saw that up to this time I'd been pitying my lot in life, while in point of fact I was privileged, compared to those disenfranchised souls who for the most part could not do a thing for themselves. At that moment, I felt truly ashamed of myself: I had fled their company, depriving them of some understanding help.
I then decided to return to the Society, and offer my services, so that my brothers could also have some good times: unknowingly, I'd just made a decision that would totally change my life...
I owe everything to the Society for the Handicapped in Quebec City, known today as Carrefour Adaptation, which introduced me to various athletic activities, for sports is what rekindled my desire to fight and to build my own happiness.
Through it, I had the good fortune to meet Jacques Vanden Abeele, professor of physical education teaching at l'Université de Sherbrooke. Mr. Abeele is the man behind my enthusiasm for sports. He had come up to Quebec City to give a three day initiation course in sports for the handicapped, which had been organized by the Federation of Leisure and Sports, and by the Society for the Handicapped in Quebec City. He was the first to show me the benefits that could be had from swimming and skiing, while heartily urging me to indulge in these sports.
I will always feel, therefore, a profound sense of admiration and gratitude for this Belgian, who knew how to convince me that through sports I would be able to tame my body. I am greatly indebted to this cultured man who is hard-working, determined, understanding, a great lover of sports and who for nearly six years has been president of the Montreal Federation of Leisure and Sports.
At this first encounter, my introduction to athletic activities, I was thirty-four, and I had quit sports for almost twenty years. It was a long time since I'd given up lacing ski boots, straddling a bicycle, and kicking a ball.
I remember the 26th of February 1971 very well. Jacques Vanden Abeele began by dividing us into two groups: on his left those who were handicapped by the upper limbs, on his right those handicapped by the lower limbs. I was very embarrassed, wondering which group I would join. After hesitating for a few minutes, I chose the first, perhaps because at that moment I was no longer wearing my artificial arm. After the first evening, in the course of which we'd been made to do physical conditioning exercises, Jacques Vanden Abeele approached me, asking if we could have a chat: that was the evening he contributed to changing my life by immersing me in the joy of sports. From then on, I determined to tackle sports headlong, without restraint.
Egged on by his encouragement, I first strove to learn to swim. But with just one arm and two stumps for legs, it's hard to control your movements. I swallowed a lot of mouthfuls, especially because I'd never swum before. The instructor, Jean Leclerc, was very demanding and it's most certainly due to his proficiency and patience that I was able to pass the Red Cross Intermediate exams six months later.
After swimming came skiing, badminton, volley ball, athletics, archery, skating ... Ever since then, I fulfill myself totally through my participation in sports: I go from one challenge to the next. Sports stimulate the will, sharpen the reflexes, develop perseverance and consequently affect an individual's physical as well as mental powers. Personally, it allowed me to rediscover nature and put my leisure hours to active use.
Now I've been skiing for five years, and I make use of the intermediates' and experts' slopes. When people look at me rushing down the trails with just one arm, they can't get over it; if they only knew that I've also got two artificial legs... One day on Mount Sainte Anne, after a successfully executed fall that made me lose both a ski and a boot, a man who helped me up scolded me sternly for wearing just nylon stockings in such cold weather!
I discovered skiing in Val-David, during a one week course for the handicapped that brought together thirteen handicapped people from all over the province, for the first time. Lise Campeau, herself a one-legged person, was the chief instructress; surrounded by several instructors, she taught us the basics of this sport which demands an especially good sense of balance. We were really a special group: men and women missing either a leg, two hands, one arm, or even stricken with cerebral palsy, and all of them trying to overcome their fear and learn how to ski.
The people who were staying at the same inn as our group couldn't get over seeing us, and they would often follow us on the slopes to catch a glimpse of our relentless determination. That week was like a dream. It gave us the chance not only to start skiing, but also to sharpen our skills and our perseverance. I took a lot of falls before I could handle the slopes fairly decently. Still, equipped with the few basic notions learnt at Val-David, I was then able to improve my performance by regularly visiting various ski centers around the province.
I began competing in 1971, and haven't stopped since. First I took part in an indoor competition, and in the Laval Provincial Games for the handicapped: these initial sport meets, where I carried off the title of best athlete of the day (and three gold medals), heightened my desire to go on training.
Then, in 1973, I was invited, along with three other handicapped persons, to represent Canada at the International Alpine Skiing Competition for the handicapped. Courchevel was my first airplane trip, my first Atlantic crossing, my first stay in France. For seven days, handicapped people from 11 countries mingled congenially while trading tips on the art of going down slopes. This was an extraordinary experience in communication for me, since I acted as interpreter for the different national groups, and consequently was able to make many friends to whom I write even today. Courchevel was also my first giant downhill, where I came in sixth, though many experts had advised me to drop out of the competition, having noticed that my overly heavy artificial legs were causing me painful swellings. It was a dream trip that revealed the joys of competing to me, as well as the sights of Paris and Saint-Étienne,
But the 1975 Saint-Étienne International Games for the handicapped, in France, really swept me off my feet. Four hundred and fifty athletes: blind, one-legged, handless, armless, in wheelchairs or on artificial legs, all mixed together every day for a week, to compare performances. A healthy competitive spirit fostered fraternal feelings. Athletes aged from fifteen to sixty, from every profession and every social class, had been delegated by their countries.
The totally armless Pole who brilliantly won the swimming competitions was a sight to see. And what about the young Hungarian table tennis champion, who held his paddle between his two wrists, because he was handless? And that blind man who did judo?
Other blind men threw a ball... And those handicapped persons in wheel chairs who participated in races, and basketball and volleyball matches? There were examples of perseverance everywhere, examples that warm the heart, that fire up our courage and will.
I went to Saint-Etienne on my own funds, after saving for about a year. This was the first time I undertook such a long trip alone, and I managed very well, thanks to the understanding attitude of various persons I met along the way. I was not very strong physically, since I'd been through a fairly serious operation just before my departure that left me dreadfully tired. However, this mishap did not prevent me from going ahead with the big trip I'd long been dreaming of.
Nearly four hundred volunteers worked hand in hand to produce the Saint-Etienne Summer Games; for its part, the population gave massive support to all the events, besides furnishing the automobiles needed to transport the athletes. Mr. Yves Nayme, president of the French Omnisport Federation for the physically handicapped, was in charge of the Games' progress; Mr. Nayme has a heart of gold, and really gives of himself in the service of our cause: stricken with polio at the age of eighteen, after drinking some polluted water, he is almost totally cured today, but he hasn't forgotten his friends for all that. He struggled courageously to see these Games come true, and he spared himself no amount of trouble to insure our comfort.
At Saint-Etienne, I was both an athlete and the head of a delegation, since I was Canada's sole representative. So I had to attend functions and receptions, besides constantly taking part in the practices and games, which caused me to meet many people and to tire myself out a great deal...
I was the only athlete there who'd been amputated of three limbs. However, this didn't stop me from carrying off a geld medal in the shot-put event, a silver medal in the javelin event, a bronze medal in swimming, and obtaining the title of most meritorious athlete in the Games. These were honors I did not expect to receive, since I had come to Saint-Etienne not to win, but to live an unique experience.
I stayed in Europe for 44 days; after Saint-Etienne came the South of France, Paris, then Spain. Everywhere people were always astonished to see that with just one arm I could knit in the train, or bathe in the Mediterranean: their astonishment enabled me to make many acquaintances! Only a single incident marred my trip: while in Marseille I was poisoned by the food, and had to resign myself to ten days of enforced rest, to counteract the nausea and dizzy spells which were ailing me. Yet in spite of this, I remember my second trip to Europe fondly; it was this trip that helped me discover the countless abilities human beings have at their disposal.
I am in the habit of going to the YWCA once a week for a swim: at first, the people were almost afraid to look at me. They felt ill-at-ease, seeing a woman 3'10" tall, walking around the swimming pool on her knees. They were no doubt worried about my performance, for their looks would follow me when I got to the water. But today the people are used to me, and no longer fuss over so little. Still, the same scene reoccurs whenever I go for a dip in other public pools, or at a beach: I am an attraction for a moment, then they forget about me. At first it was hard for me to show myself like that, almost naked; but with time I got over this unhealthy inhibition which was keeping me from the joys of bathing.
In the summer 1 practice my throws elsewhere: I go to the country and, equipped with my own gear - a discus, a javelin and a shotput -, I take advantage of the nice weather while doing my exercises. I also go bicycling and, for two years now, water-skiing; I was taught this sport by an expert and champion from Sherbrooke, Jacques Perrault, who spent hours showing me how to surface on the water and how to control my skis. So far the only sport I've had to forgo is horsemanship: I've never been able to overcome my fear of falling. Nobody can take part in all sports!
At present, I'm taking skating lessons with very young children. I'm not making very fast progress, and the children sometimes make fun of me, but they haven't seen anything yet...
In my spare moments, I learn how to read music, how to play the trumpet and the organ. I've always liked music very much, and I remember that when I was young I was really disappointed that they decided to exclude me from the convent choir, because I couldn't make the same movements as my companions. But once I was settled in Quebec, I got over this and joined the Chansonniers choir. Then I took lessons in ballroom dancing; at first, I used to hide, so that I wouldn't be asked onto the floor. On one such occasion my teacher admitted that never in his whole life had he seen legs as stiff as mine... He still managed to show me how to dance and I even went on television to give a little demonstration of my accomplishments.
The purchase of a car, in 1971, allowed me to be really autonomous, and to depend on no one. Before obtaining my driver's license, however, I had to go through many procedures, for even though I'd passed the prescribed tests, the civil servants wouldn't dare accept responsibility for my deeds and actions. Doctor Denis Jobin, a physiatrist, and the driving school instructor, both had to intervene with the authorities for me to take possession of my automobile. At first, I had the jitters, and I was so afraid that I had stomach cramps, but not once did I consider abandoning my project. Today, I manage fairly well; and the proof is that I've had just one accident so far, due to some absentmindedness. I drive with only one hand while using my stump from time to time; my car is automatic and equipped with no special devices whatever.
So I now lead a full life, and I've very few evenings to myself. Still I regret nothing, for with each new day I discover joys which have so far been denied me. As the days go by, my desire to live heightens and there are times when I feel like shouting my enthusiasm to everyone I meet on the street.
When Jacques Zouvi read my palm a few years ago, he predicted exactly what is happening to me now; it's by following his advice - never let a good opportunity pass you by - that today I can enjoy an exciting and rich life, full of varied experiences.
Some people have stated outright that by giving over part of me to the news media, I am exposing myself to a game which could be dangerous.
Many think that all this sudden publicity, which now surrounds my life, is just a flash in the pan, and that I'll have scores of problems the day I return to anonymity. Others believe that by accepting invitations from radio and TV stations for the past few years, I've been allowing journalists to exploit me, and that by backing those who wished to see me carry the torch at the Montreal Olympics, I was not really serving the cause of the handicapped, but rather my own.
These remarks have long tormented me: I've often asked myself whether I wanted this booming publicity for me, or if on the contrary I was using it to help my comrades. The answer came with time. I must honestly admit that I can't remain indifferent to so much attention; but the primary goal of my actions is, fundamentally, to help those like myself, to tell them that they must count only on themselves to make it, and that they can do this if they learn how to get the most out of their abilities. Throughout lectures that I give all over Quebec, I also try to speak out against those prejudices which still surround the handicapped, making them outcasts.
I'm no longer afraid to publicly expose my life and my handicaps, for I sincerely believe that this may encourage certain individuals to carry on their struggle in a less solitary fashion. Moreover, the various calls and letters I've received after my television appearances have assured me that I can be of some use.
But Mr. Nelson Ross was the first who made me understand that it was my duty to lay my life bare, to tell of the long road I travelled as a handicapped person, for this would perhaps help some individuals to wrench themselves from their despair.
He called me himself to his bedside one day, just after having both his legs amputated; he said that he'd seen me on television and would like me to come and relate to him how I'd come to practice many sports. He had been a sports fanatic before the snowmobile he was driving sank into a lake, forcing him to walk 12 miles in -29°C cold, till he reached an isolated cabin where, dead tired, both he and his companion fell asleep. When they awoke, they could no longer feel their legs. They were then driven to the hospital in Sept-Iles, but it was already too late: amputation proved necessary. Mr. Ross was taken to Quebec City where his legs were cut off below the knees, while his friend lost only the tips of both feet.
This man from Sept-Iles declared that since hearing about my life, he'd regained the desire to fight and to begin a new life; his recovery was very speedy, and when he left the hospital he was walking out on artificial legs, two weeks before the expected date. Since then, he has become involved in both sports and social activities, once more.
It was after answering Mr. Ross' call that I really saw how my life could serve as a stimulant, a tonic for all those, who, lost in despair, were hoping not for pity, but for understanding.
I get many letters and phone calls from friends and parents of handicapped persons, seeking advice or information. Still, I'm not always able to convince them that they should not overprotect the handicapped person, but allow him instead his independence, and urge him to work and to study, for many people still look upon us as incomplete, unfinished beings who must be constantly watched over.
Sometimes, I also manage to teach little tricks to handicapped persons who have not yet gained mastery over their bodies. I show them how to knit with just one hand, how to thread a needle, how to do household chores, in order for them to resume their normal activities, without letting their handicaps overpower them.
Many handicapped persons have extraordinary talents, which their parents and friends need only help them make use of. The example of Jean-Paul Tremblay comes to mind: a man who, stricken with multiple sclerosis, was still able to make a name for himself among Quebec painters through his hard work. Thus, the handicapped mustn't wait for the magic potion that will solve all their problems, or for the miracle that'll heal their bodies: they must work to develop whatever they have left, instead of forever crying over those limbs they've lost. We must train our bodies, teach our single hand or leg how it can manage without the other; having trained my left hand to lose its clumsiness, I am now able to sew, curl my hair, put on my make-up, wash the dishes and use the typewriter as well...
I must say that these few remarks seem unpleasant and even shocking, because the words hardly convey the amount of sweat and will-power required to produce such a change in behavior and mentality. When you are stuck in a wheelchair for life, or when you realize that you'll never again be able to use your arms or legs, it's hard to listen to others preach courage. It must also be said that in many cases there is no hope; any effort toward rehabilitation would prove futile. Those who are greatly handicapped remain so for life. These facts, however, do not take away a handicapped person's right to be treated with dignity.
I did not write this book to set forth my life as an example, nor to act as a moralist, for I know that many cases other than my own are more revealing, more worthy and more deserving to be told. I am aware that I've not accomplished the wonders, the amazing feats many people have achieved.
All I hope for, in setting down these few lines, is that I haven't revealed my life for nothing, and that this book will bring comfort of a sort, and will help awaken people. Quite often there is a way out; it's just a matter of looking for it, finding it and then using it to the limit. Now is the time for us all to take off our masks, to come out of our idleness and apathy, and to plan our own brand of happiness.
Thus, this book is directed at both handicapped and normal people, to those who have not succeeded in fulfilling their potential: I want it to be, unpretentiously, an encouragement to outdo oneself, a call to struggle, to the will to succeed, to life...
In order that the handicapped may finally try their luck at happiness, both ordinary citizens and government authorities must accept their responsibilities from now on, and no longer conceal a racist and demagogic ideology behind fine charitable theories. We are no longer living in the age when the disadvantaged could be easily locked up in attics or in special homes.
Even today the handicapped, the unemployed and the sick are still thought of as fringe elements. Of course, ordinary people keep a clear conscience by allowing their elected government to grant them a few subsidies. But they do not hesitate to maintain the psychological barrier which separates them from the supposed abnormal people whom they have relegated to another world.
Ordinary people are quite willing to help the disadvantaged substantially, but they'd rather not see them. They cannot tolerate their presence, it's too painful for them to hobnob with invalids and poor people, it stabs the heart. They can't stand the sight of those who are severely handicapped, it's too upsetting.
Without saying so out loud, many taxpayers think that these unlucky individuals have already cost them enough: why should they have to move over on the social ladder too...? They can't imagine that we can do our share: in the average person's mind we are often seen as paupers sponging off society.
Of course, in the last few years the condition of the handicapped has greatly improved: now our prostheses, wheelchairs and ortheses are free, leisure activities are organized for us, and we are allowed to attend courses gratis. But all that still isn't enough, for when a handicapped person wishes to obtain the status of an ordinary citizen, he must still experience many difficulties before finally having a normal life.
Employers don't want invalids on their staff because it degrades the work environment, keeps customers away and causes too much trouble. I've heard bosses assert that personally they'd have no objection to hiring handicapped persons, but in deference to the wishes of their own employees, they couldn't expose them to their constant presence, which would be disturbing and hard to bear...
There are also employers who will refuse to hire a handicapped person with the excuse that they couldn't stand it if one of their employees mocked his infirmities. Want to hear more? There are those who'll explain that giving a living to people who are not efficient and who'll never be 100% profitable is the government's business and not theirs. There are those who are so kind that they come out and say they think we're already unhappy enough as it is, without having to work too. And lastly, there are those hundreds of employers who say they'll call us but who throw our applications into the trash can, and those who won't make the small low-cost renovations which would permit a handicapped person to hold a job.
By making excuses of this sort, employers contribute to denying us our right to work. They insist on slandering our efficiency, our know-how, and our resourcefulness. Like many other citizens, they are willing to give us their support, but only financially, to ease their consciences. Donating a few cents to Oxfam, to the Red Cross and various charitable organizations, is, in a way, like buying a "gateway to heaven" insurance policy which frees them from all responsibility.
When, by some great stroke of luck, a handicapped person manages to find himself a job and make an honest living, his struggle still hasn't ended for all that. No doubt he'll be given work that's not too visible, he'll be hidden away in some remote office, behind a ridiculously large desk. He'll have to fight for a decent salary and for promotion; generally, he will be told that he was hired out of kindness, and not for his skills. He is then kept in an unhealthy atmosphere of extortion, and there is little chance his rights will be really respected. For a handicapped person, dedication must even include volunteering: to give absolute proof that he is profitable, he'll not only have to be more efficient than his co-workers, but also do more work, and never make mistakes...
Of course, we have laws that forbid employers from discriminating against women and the handicapped, but these laws are hardly respected, for people have not yet acquired sufficient respect for their fellow man.
Only when he earns a salary - and not a minute before - does the handicapped person become the equal of other citizens: then he pays the same taxes as everyone else! And yet, his condition requires added expenses which are not fully covered by the government. So he must spend enormous sums on transportation, because generally he's unable to take the bus, or buy himself a car. Also, he must spend more than his colleagues on clothing; in my own case, for instance, I use up a frightening quantity of nylon stockings, since my artificial leg needs only to gently knock against something for them to tear immediately. In addition, he's more accident prone, and accidents render him powerless: I remember that radius fracture which put my left wrist in a cast. In spite of this unfortunate mishap, I kept up my daily activities, under growing strain. That didn't prevent me from indulging in my favorite sport: downhill skiing. I had to buy an oversize mitt to cover my cast. On the slopes, I would ask for help, and people were only too happy to oblige.
To even out the chances between normal people and ourselves, the government should, in my opinion, exempt us from taxes, as is done in other countries. This measure would aid our rehabilitation, while allowing us to provide for the various costs which our situation entails.
Measures which would help us enter the work force should also be established. Couldn't one give subsidies to employers who want to use our services? Isn't money given to employers who hire students for the summer?
It would also be a good thing for the handicapped if they could have some time to adapt, upon entering the job market. For a certain period, the government would refrain from cutting off their allowances, which would urge them to look for a job, and no longer be obsessed with the dread of losing their sole source of income, should their attempt prove futile.
Nothing should be spared when helping the disadvantaged become part of society. Not only do they need special medical care; they also need to feel useful, to do something that makes them feel worthy. They want a chance to live with dignity, to have a trade, and be thought of just like other citizens.
But while attitudes have noticeably evolved, we are still far from a world where handicapped children will be able to go to public schools, instead of being relegated to specialized centers which keep them from daily contact with ordinary people. We are very far from a world where each would have a place, no matter his condition. Aren't many paraplegics and blind people still barred from movie theaters and restaurants, with the excuse that their wheelchairs or their dogs are too much of a nuisance?... How many taxi drivers will not admit wheelchairs, because of the added effort it demands from them?
Our alleged democratic society, outwardly based on justice, respect and the equality of all, has not yet justified the use of such epithets. When you know that today governments still prefer to spend staggering sums on grandiose projects, instead of seeing to the well-being of the underprivileged (the aged, the sick, the unemployed), then you no longer feel like talking about equity.
The present world is built solely by and for normal people. Consequently, many handicapped persons are not free to get around our cities, since buildings were not constructed to meet their needs. The staircases and steps prevent people in wheelchairs from entering these buildings; telephones and mirrors that are set too high, and toilets that are too narrow, or lacking security ramps, keep them from leading a normal life. There should be a huge ad campaign, directed at architects, so that in future, the handicapped may move about as they please.
But for such measures to come about, ordinary people must be ready to support them fully. It's up to them to let their elected representatives know that they are prepared to underwrite such investments. There are feelings that cannot be enforced by laws: when the general citizenry becomes conscious of its duty toward the underprivileged, the government will then have no other alternative but to work out policies which are likely to favor mutual aid and mutual respect.
We have a long struggle to carry on individually and collectively: the struggle for justice. The day each citizen willingly accepts responsibility for social equality, by making it his personal crusade, then we'll no longer speak of injustice, but rather, of brotherly love.
While awaiting this better world, the relatives and friends of the handicapped have the burdensome task of preparing them for the new era by urging them to be self-sufficient. The handicapped must no longer be overprotected, cuddled, or pitied; that destroys the personal initiative, resourcefulness and freedom of people who, like everyone else, need to reveal their talents and further their growth, and to have a normal social environment. Treating them like other people can only make them feel better; they will gradually learn how to enjoy life to the extent which their skills allow. Once they are active and independent, they will forget their handicaps, and plunge head-on into life's adventures.
Handicapped people can hold important positions, and in fact, many have succeeded in proving their efficiency. In Europe, where attitudes tend to favor the integration of the handicapped, one-legged doctors, paraplegic engineers and blind sociologists can go about their activities unimpeded. But to do this, they gave up the hypersensitivity which many handicapped persons exhibit. They decided to push ahead, to cast off their timidity, to escape the fossilized environment of the handicapped, and not be afraid of asking for help when it's necessary. They don't talk about their illness, they know how to break free of their handicaps, and enjoy life.
We must not be ashamed of getting the most out of those resources which are left us. Jean Byrns of Sherbrooke has understood this very well. Though both his legs are cut off at the trunk, this still does not stop him from going out, travelling, and tending to his affairs. He walks without a prosthesis (since he could never accustom himself to one): equipped with leather gloves and a cushion, he slides over the ground with surprising agility and in this way he can get around as he pleases. Jean Byrns could well have used every imaginable excuse to bury himself in resignation, and people, no doubt, would have approved; however, he chose to struggle, and live normally.
Prostheses are not always an absolute necessity for the handicapped. Many one-legged persons prefer not to wear them, since they can do much better without. Personally, I no longer wear the artificial arm I had bought many years ago; I quickly noticed that my stump had become so skilful, that the prosthesis would never match it. So I had to put it aside, telling myself that I was better off without a prosthesis, which was more aesthetic than efficient, and would in fact handicap me even more.
Since I'm basing myself on my own experience, I cannot speak about rehabilitation without bringing up a subject especially dear to my heart: athletics. At present, it's safe to say that the small associations for the handicapped which exist don't have the funds needed to offer continuous and organized sports activities. Meager personnel and lack of money are the main problems which these associations must face: so there is no way they can work out permanent athletic activities which the handicapped could join, to attain physical fitness and to relax. At the present time, the handicapped enjoy but six to eight months of sports activities, because there is an interruption during the summer season; this intolerable situation prevents them from following a well-planned training program, which would undoubtedly compel them to greater involvement in this field.
If the handicapped are to enjoy the same services which are available to the general public, it might be advisable to invent a new way of doing things. Since sports federations (devised for normal people) are equipped with well-established functional structures, then why couldn't the handicapped be incorporated into these groups? Certain individuals only need to be adequately trained so they, in turn, could give the handicapped the benefit of special learning techniques. In this way, the handicapped could join organized sports activities, which would give them an opportunity to mingle with normal people and become more involved in their environment. Sports would thus become the ideal medium for spawning mutual aid and social integration.
Moreover, the handicapped cannot indulge in sports if an equipment-lending system is not instituted. For instance, they generally don't have the means to buy themselves cross-country skis, or alpine skis. If sports associations could, on the one hand, loan them the basic equipment, and on the other, organize a transportation system, this would urge young people to keep in good shape, and cultivate their skills.
I really believe that athletics is one of the most effective methods of bettering the lot of the handicapped. It would make them forget their worries, their handicaps, while allowing them to meet people. But many handicapped individuals today still believe that sports are not for them; they are unaware that many people, like themselves, (often more disadvantaged than they), have succeeded in training their bodies almost to perfection. I have seen blind people go down ski slopes at daredevil speeds: a guide skied before them, indicating the way by tapping on their poles. So sports are within the reach of anyone who, insofar as his or her abilities permit, really wants to outdo himself or herself.
My fondest wish would be to prove all this by personally introducing handicapped people to sports; but to make this dream come true, I would have to go back to school once again and enter a university program in physical education. For the moment, I haven't the funds needed to complete this project; still, this doesn't mean I'm going to give it up. Time often has a way of fixing things.
So, there are still many struggles left for me to wage before I can enjoy a "hard day's night", and I don't intend to lay my burden down before I've truly finished everything which I've undertaken. My solidarity is with those who have understood that in fact, all men are incomplete, handicapped beings; only when we are united will there be individual and collective liberation.
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