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Barbara Turnbull. Champion of Disability Rights 1965-2015

Barbara Turnbull was a well-known fixture in the Canadian disability community. Her tenacity, dedication and perseverance were second to none. She was arguably one of the most recognizable and effective champions of disability advocacy in Canada.

Turnbull passed away on Sunday May 10, due to complications from pneumonia; she was fifty years old.

Turnbull made headlines in 1983, when she was shot in the back during a convenience store robbery, rendering her quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. She did not fade in the face of tragedy and adversity; she persevered and carved out a legacy that will never be forgotten.

Turnbull graduated from Arizona State University in 1990 with a degree in journalism and was subsequently hired by one of Canada’s largest and most successful daily newspapers, the Toronto Star. A regular contributor to the Star’s “Life” section, her career allowed her to raise awareness and provide much needed perspective on countless issues faced by Torontonians and Canadians with disabilities with rare candour, sensitivity and strength. The unrivaled authenticity that Turnbull brought to her journalistic career cannot be taught. It is something that can only be brought forth through lived experience.

I was not surprised to see an article posted on the Toronto Star website commemorating Turnbull by Sunday evening. I was surprised that the majority of the article focused on the awe-inspiring affect she had on her co-workers as they witnessed what she was able to achieve despite having a severe disability. The severity of her injury and her wheelchair were mentioned at every possible juncture as well as how Turnbull strove tirelessly to be seen beyond her disability. At one point there is reference to an emotion-filled colleague saying, “Can you imagine waking up every morning and doing what she did without being able to feel or move anything below your neck?”

Turnbull did not want her injury or subsequent disability to define her, nor did she let it. She wanted to be remembered not for her disability, but for her work in journalism and advocacy. The Toronto Star’s commemorative article does absolutely no disrespect to Turnbull. I found personally that there were portions of the article that rubbed me the wrong way because all of Turnbull’s achievements were framed within the context of achieving them in spite of her disability.

A co-worker of Turnbull’s is quoted as saying, “She used positive language, the language of the able-bodied, so that she was not set apart.”

“The language of the able-bodied”? I understand that this refers to certain colloquialisms like “walking to work” and “running an errand”, but the immediate reaction I had to this statement was, “Wait, people with disabilities have a different language?”

Another example is “recall[ing] her amazement when Turnbull would even be sent to the United States to cover stories.”

Journalists get assigned stories. They travel. I would much rather the article discussed Turnbull as having been a well traveled journalist rather than giving it the context of amazement simply because she was able to fulfill a requirement of journalism which is not all that uncommon.

I understand the intention behind these conveyances. However, I do not imagine that this is the type of rhetoric Turnbull would have wanted. To me it does not translate properly; it gives the impression that all of her achievements were obtained in spite of her disability. Her injury and subsequent disability lit a spark inside of her. She didn’t accomplish great things in spite of her disability. Her disability was what drove her to become the champion that she became. It fueled her. It became the source of her strength and the catalyst for her purpose in life.

I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Barbara Turnbull personally on more than one occasion. She was a force to be reckoned with and a person above all else.
As a child, my mother worked with Turnbull’s mother and our family would rent the Turnbull family cottage, which was retrofitted to be fully accessible. Some of my greatest childhood memories took place at that cottage, which we visited every summer and even one Thanksgiving weekend.

I met Turnbull a few years ago, through Canadian fashion designer Izzy Camilleri. In 2004, Turnbull needed a custom-made cape, for a formal function and the fashion editor at the Star referred Turnbull to Camilleri, who was well-known for her work with fur and leather. Camilleri had no idea that wheelchair users had unique clothing needs; Turnbull provided a turning point in Camilleri’s career. After meeting Turnbull and learning about her unique clothing challenges, Camilleri was inspired to create a line of clothing tailored specifically to fit and compliment a seated body. Turnbull was impressed, but skeptical that an entire clothing line could be borne from the needs of a wheelchair user. Izzy Camilleri launched her groundbreaking IZ Adaptive Clothing line in 2009, remaining close and steadfast friends with the woman who inspired such a meaningful shift in her career.

Camilleri first started making clothing for me in 2012; I happily volunteered for interviews, or any assistance she required with promotion. This was how I met Turnbull. I owe her a great debt of gratitude for many things: the cottage responsible for priceless family memories, for providing the inspiration for a clothing line that changed my life, thereby allowing me to cultivate an enduring friendship with its designer, and most significantly for giving me something to aspire to as a writer.

Barbara Turnbull lived an exemplary life as a strong, determined woman who became disabled due to unimaginable circumstances, but refused to be defined or stifled because of it. If I can live my life with even a fraction of the strength she had, I’m off to a good start.

-Layla Guse Salah

Disability Today Network