Invited to speak at the Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Program's Luncheon in Saskatoon, award winning Global News anchor Julie Mintenko and Paralympian champion Alexandre Dupont revealed personal stories that moved all.
VIDEOS - With permission of Global News Saskatoon - A Division of Shaw Media Inc., 2012)
Almost everyone agrees that a lot of progress has been made, but that we may need many more International Days of Persons with Disabilities before the remaining obstacles to their full participation in society are dismantled. As the poet and writer Denise Bissonnette remarked in Dialect, a newsmagazine of the Saskatchewan Association for Community Living, “We are far from the finish line of achieving True Inclusion!”
Such positive thinking was in the air, almost palpable, when more than one hundred people, braving an early fit of winter, responded this week to the invitation of the North Saskatchewan Independent Living Centre (NSILC) and converged on the Prairieland Exhibition Park, in Saskatoon, to hear the moving stories of two speakers already well known in the community: Julie Mintenko, news anchor at Global Television Saskatoon, and Paralympian Alexandre Dupont.
In the usual order: Kelsey and Elena Bentley, both sisters with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, but nonetheless active, one wanting a career in music, the other already managing her own dance studio; Jerry Kapeluck, 37 years old, businessman, suffering from spina-bifida; and his parents, Dwayne and Marilyn, both an example of courage in the face of adversity (Marilyn gave a kidney to a daughter who is also sick).
Some came in wheelchairs, or slowly walked in with the help of a cane or while holding the arm of a companion, or the hand of a family member. Some drove in on their small scooters and used the few feet of space between the tables and the walls as parking spots. Others walked toward their seats while keeping an eye on a specialist of sign language. Almost all of them, men and women of different ages and backgrounds, were people with disabilities, but on this day the diseases took a back seat to good humour and determination.
For many of the guests it was a repeat attendance, because the Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Program’s Luncheon has become a must for its warm mix of networking, learning and sharing. For the staff at the North Saskatchewan Independent Living Centre, host of the event with the support of Western Economic Diversification Canada, it is another useful tool in helping disabled persons with entrepreneurial drive realize their full potential “and contribute to the economic growth of their community”. More importantly, such a day is like adding one more brick to the edifice of self-confidence and sense of belonging, which can become brittle when someone with a disability is reminded time after time of his or her “limits” in life.
One such person, Jerry Kapeluck, a 37 year-old man with spina bifida, started his own company, JCC Computers, after seeing too many doors close on him. “I got really fed up with the lack of job offers, and tired of being told what I could do or could not do. I learned fast, worked hard, got help from my parents, and now I am the happy owner of my enterprise”. For Kapeluck and others at the luncheon, the speeches they heard that day were a good shot in the arm.
A journalist on a mission to increase public awareness
Julie Mintenko with Len Boser, a well-known advocate of disabled persons' rights. She got to know him through her work as a reporter covering disability issues.
Since graduating from the Broadcasting Program in 2003 at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Julie Mintenko’s career has become a story of fast tracking to success. She joined Global News Saskatoon in 2007 and is now a news anchor, but before, as a reporter, Julie spent several years in the field, covering every subject from healthcare to crime. She says today that the ones she’s most passionate about are the personal stories, “the very personal ones, the kind that are heartbreaking to watch but important to tell”.
Members of the Saskatchewan Association for Community Living, responsible for the obvious success of the 2012 disABILITY Expo in Saskatoon. Standing are Kevin McTavish, Executive Director, and Kim Hague, Assistant Executive Director; with Bonnie Cherewyk, Communications and research advocate.
Stories like the feature she did for Global on Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, or the one about a family whose child was born with Tay-Sachs. But it was a story on the difficulties wheelchair users had to put up with in the city of Saskatoon that caught the attention. Not only was the situation remedied, but in April and June, 2012, Julie Mintenko was awarded two coveted prizes by the Association of Electronic Journalists (RTDNA): The Adrienne Clarkson Cultural Diversity National Award and the Adrienne Clarkson Cultural Diversity Prairie Award.
Julie is of course appreciative of the recognition given to her work, but she does not dwell on it. She often said, and repeated it during her interview with Digital Journal, that what is really important is to “open the eyes of as many as possible”, to help shed a light on diseases that many have never heard of, and to increase public awareness of disability issues. “Those who suffer from disability, and the organisations fighting for them, they already know what it is to live with disability; we must reach all those who don’t live with someone, or who don’t know anyone living with a disabling condition, because once they understand the consequences, then society can change.”
So then, on the heels of this success, Julie Mintenko put in another effort at raising awareness. It took the form of a three-part series on Disabilities in the Workforce. Global News Saskatoon has graciously given us permission to show these three videos.
A very personal fight with disability
Although Julie Mintenko, the news anchor, is not in the business of talking a lot about herself – “and I am too busy anyway preparing my own questions for others” – she did let go during her speech at the Luncheon and revealed for the first time what many saw as the genesis of her drive to raise public awareness.
You could hear a fly. “Why did I feel compelled to write stories about disabilities? Well, I was raised by a mother suffering every day from a terrible disability. I saw and heard other people judging my mother because she was different.”
Now you could hear the fly fall head first on the floor. Julie Mintenko’s mother suffers from Scleroderma, a severe chronic systemic autoimmune disease. “I was very young and had a lot of difficulties with some comments made by other youngsters or even by adults.”
At the end of her speech, Julie Mintenko was surprised to receive a gift, as a thank you note for her work, from artist Kevin Hastings. Those who, like Julie, are country music fans, will recognize Keith Urban.
At the end of Julie’s speech, one comment made at our table matched the spirit of the whole room. “This was very touching”, said Elena Bentley, who manages her own dance studio, Sole Performance, despite being disabled by the Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.
“I wanted to encourage people”
With a good dose of humour, Alexandre Dupont, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident 10 years ago, picked up the microphone and guided us through a story filled with hard work and hope. The terrible accident, the shock of losing a leg, the realization that he was, at 17, a disabled person, and then the discovery of a sport – racing in a wheelchair –, the meeting of his future wife, Ilana Duff¸ his moving with her to Saskatoon in 2006 and then the launching of his own company, Revolution Sport Equipment, all of this was rolled down like five consecutive scenes of a dramatic film in which humour had been freely sprinkled by some director intent on being an original.
During those years, the Québec native found the time – and must have drilled in some magic place for the energy – to become a Paralympian, winning a bronze medal at the World Championships in New Zealand and representing Canada at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
Alexandre moved back to Québec, on the South Shore, only two weeks ago, where he will not only press forward with making products for sports training, but will also prepare himself for the next games in Rio de Janeiro. This time he won’t be alone, for his wife Ilana, paralyzed and in a wheelchair, will help with the company and intends to be a participant herself at the Games in Rio.
This Paralympian was used mostly to giving pep talks to youngsters in schools, and so his speech, in front of a group of adults, entrepreneurs and disabled persons, was a first for him. “I wanted to give words of encouragement, using elements of my own experience to conjure up the idea of sustained effort. We must avoid giving up, whatever the difficulty of the moment”.
He certainly got that through, and on those jolly notes, the crowd was ready to move on to the next big room, also packed with people for the opening of the fittingly named 2012 disABILITY Awareness Expo. Hosted by the Saskatchewan Association of Community Living, this third annual event served as an excellent complement to the luncheon that had just taken place. About 50 exhibitors, from government agencies to private businesses to social organisations, offered a vast array of services and resources for the benefit of persons with disabilities wanting to start their own businesses, searching for volunteering opportunities, or learning about what supports are available to them.
The themes of that day, Removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all, Bridge to Success and Living without Barriers, as well as the contest announced for new entrepreneurs, Just Watch Me, are more than just words. They are an expression of hope built on the achievements made in the search for inclusion and full participation in society of persons with disabilities. They are also a reminder that the work is still in progress.