Part 1: Waterloo student gets grant for work in rehab

Few people know what it takes to overcome a disability more than Meagan Warnica.

The University of Waterloo grad student was recently awarded a special grant designed to support her studies while she copes with an invisible disability.

It wasn’t always like that. As a 17-year-old, Warnica was looking ahead to the rest of her life and making plans for university.

But then came a car crash, causing a broken pelvis, broken ankle and a brain injury. All of a sudden, everything changed.

She began experiencing problems with short-term memory and chronic back pain. Seven years later, they haven’t subsided.

“I have short-term memory loss now, and that affects things like reading, and obviously my work at school,” she says.

At first, Warnica was reluctant to tell others about her disability, because she was concerned about being stigmatized.

“There’s really no point in telling people, because they will just treat you differently,” he says.

“Just looking at me, I look normal, just like anybody else. I find it really hard to accept that I’m different from other people.”

When Warnica registered at the University of Waterloo, she identified herself to the school’s office for persons with disabilities, which passed the information on to her professors.

Many of them hadn’t dealt with situations like hers before, but all of them found Warnica eager to learn as much as possible, unwilling to fall back on her disability.

Warnica took a lighter course load and was given extra time to write exams, but otherwise went through university exactly the same way as other students. She’s even set a deadline for herself of finishing her master’s degree in the typical two-year window.

“She hasn’t used her disability as an excuse at all,” says. Dr. Andrew Laing, who taught Warnica in a biomechanics class and is now supervising her master’s degree.

“She kind of exceeded all the expectations that I had for her and for any grad student in general.”

Earlier this month, Warnica’s graduate research on rehabilitation was recognized with a TD Grant.

“I’m really thankful there are programs out there that recognize stuff like that,” she says.

Warnica plans to use the money from the grant to help her focus on her studies, by paying for things like a new sit-and-stand desk to alleviate her chronic back pain.

In the longer term, she’s not sure if she’ll try for a doctorate or transition into a career, but she does hope her research will help others to have a better quality of life.


Part 2: Program determines when injured drivers can get back on the road

Serious injuries can make it hard for people to get back behind the wheel of a car, but medical professionals have developed a process to make it a little bit easier.

The DriveABLE assessment program was introduced at St. Mary’s General Hospital’s wellness rehabilitation centre in 2006. Focusing on people with minor injuries or cognitive impairments, DriveABLE determines if its patients are able to drive competently.

“It allows people who have suffered from head injuries or strokes to be able to rehab, get back on the road again and gain back their independence,” says wellness centre manager Luann Skovsgaard.

The test is also able to be used as a baseline when dealing with people with dementia.

“Their reflexes, reaction time, memory and judgment, those types of things may be impacted by medication or by a psychological problem,” she said.

Once the results of the test are known, a doctor makes the ultimate decision on whether to report concerns to the Ministry of Transportation. Then occupational therapists like Erika Pond Clements are put on the case.

“It’s my role to interpret all that information and help determine if there is rehab potential,” she explains.

Clients who outright fail the test are able to try again after taking lessons or completing rehabilitation programs.

In some cases, the occupational therapist may find that the patient will be able to return to driving, but only after an adjustment is made to their vehicle. Adjustments can be as simple as adding a spinner knob or as complex as installing a wheelchair lift and making the vehicle fully accessible.

Sparrow-Hawk, part of the Shoppers Home Health Care automotive division with a location in Waterloo, is one of the leading Canadian companies when it comes to adapting vehicles.

Most of their clients have experienced difficulty driving after injury or illness.

Modifications done by Sparrow-Hawk include raised roofs, accessible steering controls, and anything else necessary for their clients to drive.

“It’s a custom modification in almost every case, so we want to make sure that everything fits them properly and that the outcome is positive for them,” says Mark Andrews of Sparrow-Hawk.

“We love to see the smile on their face when they get behind the wheel again.”


Part 3: Kitchener company breaks through accessible workspace


After picking up a disability, one of the biggest difficulties can often be found at the workplace.

While many employers will do their best to accommodate employees facing new physical challengers, ultimately some disabilities make certain jobs completely untenable.

Even then, finding a new job that can meet a new set of physical requirements often presents its own challenges.

But some companies are working to change that.

“Opening your doors to people with disabilities is not an onerous or scary endeavour. It’s becoming more commonplace,” says Dan Lajoie of the Independent Learning Centre, a Kitchener-based organization which provides support to disabled people in Waterloo Region.

That support even extends to the ILC’s own employees. Lajoie has spinal muscular atrophy and needs a wheelchair to get around, but he’s able to work as the ILC’s peer resource and advocacy coordinator thanks to automatic doors and a microphone-controlled computer.

“Oftentimes when you have a disability, it’s difficult to find your niche, somewhere that you can make an honest contribution to society,” he says.

Dolphin Digital Technology is one company coming up with solutions to that dilemma – starting right in their own backyard.

Dolphin specializes in virtual computer networks, which allows a company’s employees to access the same digital workspace without being in the same location. It’s a service they use themselves, as many Dolphin employees rarely meet face-to-face.

“We have literally made ourselves available to be inclusive of anyone out there and bring them into us, virtually speaking,” says Dolphin employee Jamie Burton.

Steve Hendry had trouble finding a job, because his cerebral palsy posed a difficulty for many employers.

“They tend to look at the crutch that I use to walk with as a potential barrier to my ability to do the job,” he says.

But that disability wasn’t a problem for Dolphin.

“We all work together in a virtual work environment in a virtual office space, which allows us the opportunity to work from home,” says Hendry.

Back at the Independent Living Centre, Lajoie holds up Dolphin as a model for other employers to follow.

“They’ve set an example of what it means to employ people with disabilities, of how you can have a fully functioning and successful business using that as your mandate,” he says.

Dolphin’s commitment to promoting workplace support for people with disabilities extends to the annual disabilities mentoring day they hold in early December.


Part 4: Whole family pitches in to help diabetic sisters

Having three girls between the ages of four and 10 can make mornings hectic enough for a family.

For one Kitchener family, though, things are even busier – because two of their daughters have Type 1 diabetes.

Ron and Melanie Friesen could be forgiven if they and their daughters played the victims after daughter Sierra was diagnosed with diabetes five years ago, and daughter Sienna more recently.

But that’s not their style. Instead, the Friesens have developed a strong sense of family and managed to overcome the disease as a team.

“I have my sisters to help when I’m scared,” says Sienna.

Even middle child Savannah pitches in.

“If my older sister or little sister is low, I ask them if they’re OK and if they’ve had some sugar,” she says.

Each morning before heading out to school, when other kids might be eating sugary cereals or getting a few extra minutes of sleep, Sierra and Sienna closely monitor their blood-sugar levels.

“My life is really hard. It’s not really that normal,” says Sierra.

That abnormal life comes with a silver lining. When Sienna was diagnosed with diabetes, having a sister going through the same thing made it a little bit easier.

“I think the transition was easier, but just as heartbreaking,” says Melanie.

While many assume the Friesens brought the disease on themselves through poor diet, Type 1 diabetes is actually a genetic disorder.

Sierra, as the older child who has been diabetic for longer, is more independent than her younger, recently diagnosed sister.

But with each of them needing blood tests every two hours, everybody still does what they can to pitch in.

At school, Melanie – who works just around the corner – and Savannah make sure Sierra and Sienna are doing what they need to do in order to manage their disease.

Even overnight, the girls’ blood-sugar levels are monitored and recorded.

“Her pump goes off, and I go awake, and she just sleeps through it,” says Savannah.

It’s a daily process the Friesens call “overwhelming,” but also one that’s brought them closer together.