I had to enlist and I spent a large part of my youth living below the poverty line

October is Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM). To help raise awareness, CBC Calgary highlights stories of self-advocates and tips from inclusive employers. Learn more at cbc.ca/mycalgary. This story is the experience of Athena Cooper, a visual artist and coach who uses artistic practices to help others explore, grow and heal.


I was born with the genetic condition, osteogenesis imperfecta (or brittle bone disease), and have been an electric wheelchair user since I was six years old.

After a successful 14 year career in web development and digital marketing, I chose to leave the corporate 9 to 5 to become a visual artist, creativity coach and entrepreneur.

I am a professional acrylic painter and an active member of the Federation of Canadian Artists. I have exhibited my paintings in Calgary, Vancouver and virtually during the pandemic climate. With my husband, a clinical advisor, I also co-founded the Tilted Windmills Healing Centre, an initiative that promotes the use of creativity and self-expression as tools to support mental health.

As a visual artist, I use my art as my advocacy and my way of allowing others to see the world through my eyes as a person with a disability. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Calgary Arts Development and the City of Calgary for the research and development phase of a future art exhibition on the theme of love interable.

Athena and her husband, Stefan, with their two dogs, Lucy and Lola. (Athena Cooper)

I see disability relationships – the loving relationship between a disabled partner and an able-bodied partner – as a microcosm of the relationship between disabled and able-bodied people in society at large.

Do the preconceptions around interabled love dig into the same contentious questions about what value does a disabled person bring to that loving relationship (or society)? Will this person ever be just a burden to this relationship (or society)?

I firmly believe that we all have something to contribute and that people with disabilities can and should be able to lead ordinary lives.– Athena Cooper

I firmly believe that we all have something to contribute and that people with disabilities can and should be able to lead ordinary lives.

I know from my own relationship with my valid husband that my disability is an aspect of our relationship but not its central focus by any means.

In my planned art exhibition, I will highlight the extraordinary and ordinary nature of our lives as an interable couple through a series of paintings.

Athena’s acrylic painting, Trusty Steed, shows her view from her wheelchair as she sits on the grass at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. (Athena Cooper)

Wheelchair accessibility is a priority in everything I do and may require an exceptional level of advance planning to make the simplest outing a reality. For example, when I was recently hired to lead a painting workshop, I made an extra trip ahead of time to confirm that I would be able to get into the building, have enough space to maneuver in the workshop area and have access to an accessible washroom.

Although some of this accessibility check can be done over the phone, I know from experience that requirements that I deem absolutely essential can be unknowingly missed by someone who does not have a solid understanding of this What does accessibility mean? A single step at the entrance, a doorway that’s too narrow, a narrow hallway full of furniture, or an accessible toilet that’s partially used for storage – all of these are deal breakers I’ve encountered in so-called “accessible” spaces. to wheelchairs”.

A single step at the entrance, a doorway that’s too narrow, a narrow hallway full of furniture, or an accessible toilet that’s partially used for storage – all of these are deal breakers I’ve encountered in so-called “accessible” spaces. in wheelchairs”. .– Athena Cooper

There is also a lot of planning to get to and from my job. If I drive there in a wheelchair, I can use Google Street View to confirm the existence of sidewalks with curbs along my route.

For longer projects, I’ll book a Calgary Transit Access, which works best when secured five days in advance and requires buffering for about an hour on each side of the trip to account for delays in pick-up and drop-off.

I would challenge employers to overturn their preconceptions about hiring people with disabilities. If they think hiring someone with a disability is going to be a pain or cost them extra time and resources, I tell them how much will it cost them to ignore the disability in the equation? What talent pool will they miss?

People with disabilities can be fantastic employees because they are naturally creative problem solvers, and study after study has shown that they have lower turnover rates than their non-disabled counterparts.

If they think hiring someone with a disability is going to be a pain or cost them extra time and resources, I tell them how much will it cost them to ignore the disability in the equation?– Athena Cooper

Additionally, disability can happen to anyone at any time in their life, so planning for accessibility and inclusion can benefit not only new employees, but existing employees as well. I remember when a co-worker broke his ankle skiing and came to my office horrified at all the accessibility pain points he had discovered around the office after hobbling for a few days on crutches – all the same ones I dealt with in my wheelchair on a daily basis.

Athena Cooper left the 9 to 5 corporate world to become a visual artist, creativity coach and entrepreneur. (Athena Cooper)

Unlike places that are more open to the public such as storefronts and restaurants, office environments are not required to have the same level of accessibility.

After finishing college, I was applying for jobs at small companies that matched my entry-level background only to find they were located in walk-in offices above storefronts. On the other hand, I couldn’t be hired by big companies that might have had the accessibility I needed because I didn’t have the level of experience they wanted.

In the end, I had to commit myself and spent much of my youth living below the poverty line on government benefits by taking small freelance jobs, volunteering or starting my own projects in order to develop my CV and my portfolio.

I remember when a co-worker broke his ankle skiing and came to my office horrified at all the accessibility pain points he had discovered around the office after hobbling for a few days on crutches – all the same ones I dealt with in my wheelchair on a daily basis.– Athena Cooper

Today, some would say the situation has changed thanks to more people working from home. However, I would say there is a difference between the option of working from home and being forced into it due to a lack of accessibility.

Potential employers should know that people with disabilities can bring to the table an unexpected set of skills and strengths they have acquired over a lifetime of challenges.

I once had a high-pressure role in email marketing with a large apparel retailer that required all my planning skills and the ability to swing direction on a hairpin. My co-workers would sometimes ask me how I seemed so insensitive to it all, and I would simply reply, “Living with a disability is just going from one damn thing to another.

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