On June 27, Gus Reed presented author and activist Jen Powley with the 2019 James McGregor Stewart Award, handed out by the James McGregor Stewart Society, a disability rights group based in Halifax.
Powley is a tireless advocate for disability rights and housing for people with disabilities. Jen, a quadriplegic as a result of a cruel case of Multiple Sclerosis, has spent years fighting for the right of persons with severe physical disabilities to live independently, rather than in nursing homes. In Nova Scotia, small option homes are reserved for persons labelled as intellectually or mentally disabled – so persons with severe physical handicaps have no option but to live in a nursing home with people often three times their age. This is a tragedy, especially young people and those under 60 who wish to live an independent and stimulating life.
Powley’s book, Just Jen: Thriving Through Multiple Sclerosis won the 2017 Margaret and John Savage First Book award for non-fiction. Just Jen is an autobiography that is truly amazing. Her openness and thoughtfulness about herself and her body is refreshing. She blames no one; she does not castigate the medical profession or others for her situation. At age 39, she used her voice to create a positive and eloquent account of disability and frequent health setbacks. Yet her book is insightful and resonates with people with and without physical disabilities.
Nova Scotia’s Speaker of the House of Assembly, Kevin Murphy, presented Jen with the $1000 cheque. Murphy, who is a quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair, explained that many other countries don’t value or respect people with disabilities the way Canada does. He said Nova Scotia was helping persons with disabilities and increasing awareness through the province’s Disability Act and the Accessibility Directorate.
Just who was James McGregor Stewart, for whom the prize is named? Born in Pictou county in 1889, Stewart became a well-known Halifax lawyer. He graduated as the top student at the Dalhousie Law School. However in 1910, though shortlisted for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, he was refused it because he had had polio as a child and walked with crutches. The law school’s dean, Richard Chapman Weldon in refusing the Rhodes to Stewart, wrote: “Serious physical defects should be considered as rendering a candidate ineligible for the Rhodes Scholarship.”
Though 109 years has passed since Stewart faced discrimination based on his disability, we see it all too often today—we need to understand and pave the way for people with severe physical disabilities as well as others with disabilities – to be able to live as independently as possible as members of our community. There are a number of activist groups including No More Warehousing, that could use your support.
Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, an organization that fights discrimination, bullying and racism in the workplace. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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