Chasing a Dream
Four People. Four Disabilities. Four Diverse Career Directions. Four Memorable Stories of Challenging Barriers
By Vesna Plazacic
A young woman discovers her epilepsy could connect her to others in the business world. A young man, who as a child lost his hearing in the Nicaraguan civil war, now wants desperately to be accepted in competitive horse racing. A comedian with muscular dystrophy is fighting ferociously, but with humour, for inclusion on the silver screen and elsewhere. And a poet writes about his stutter, reminding us that it’s important to examine our perception of others and of ourselves. These compelling personal stories showcase both the difficulties and the rewards of overcoming life’s obstacles—plus a remarkable determination to bring greater diversity to the workplace, be it indoors or out.
NICOLAS SORRELL: Racing to open doors and minds at the horse track
It’s only once in a while that we hear a story so extraordinary that it stops us in our tracks. Such is the life of Scott and Nicolas Sorrell, a father and son fighting for justice in a world that has left them disheartened one too many times.
Their story began in 1988 in Nicaragua, during that country’s civil war. Scott was on a humanitarian mission, helping to farm coffee crops, when he encountered a small boy in a full body cast at a nearby orphanage. Nicolas’s parents had been murdered. His father, who operated a co-operative farm, was kidnapped and presumed killed. In the days that followed, a hand grenade was tossed into their home, killing Nicolas’ mother and sending him out the window, damaging him psychologically and emotionally, and causing his hearing loss.
The school where Nicolas ended up was a refuge for kids who were deaf and whose parents had been killed in the war, but it had no teachers. Since Scott knew a bit of sign language, he was asked to stay and teach for a week. He ended up staying on for six years, and Nicolas, the deaf boy in the cast, became one of his sons. Scott was 27 and single when he adopted Nicolas and another boy from the orphanage.
When he brought them back to Canada in 1993, Scott became one of the first single males to become a foster parent through the Children’s Aid Society. Since then, he has supported more than 40 other kids. Some have gone on to college and university, and nearly all still stay in touch. Currently, Scott works as a school counselor in Mississauga and is a single dad living with five boys. Scott has been fighting for their rights since the beginning.
When the school board rejected Nicolas, Scott helped to get him into a “hearing” school. When Nicolas and his friends who are also deaf couldn’t find employment, Scott reached out to the media. And most recently he fought for Nicolas’ right to attend Olds College, a jockey program in Alberta, to which he had been admitted, then rejected, then readmitted. “He learned sign language and then taught me,” Nicolas says. “He never let me feel sorry for myself but helped me to see my abilities and strengths—not my disabilities.” Becoming a professional jockey has been Nicolas’s dream since he was a boy. He feels a natural, intuitive connection to the animals.
“His sense of touch and gentleness seems to reach any wild aggressive horse,” says Scott, “and they respond to him by following his sounds and physical directions.” Interacting with horses, Nicolas no longer needed sign language or an interpreter. It became his gateway to independence and higher self-esteem.
The journey, though, is proving to be a difficult one. While Nicolas did receive a certificate from Olds College in August, it does not guarantee him a spot at any racetrack. Scott recalls one of the first times Nicolas encountered blatant discrimination due to his disability:
“Years ago I accompanied Nic to a job interview at a local horse barn. At that time he had been working with horses for about five years, even broke in his own wild horse. When we showed up to the interview, the woman noticed that he was deaf, addressed only me and said the interview would not happen, that she was not interested in him for any position. Her opinion and actions to my son were clearly determined by her preconceived notions of his disability.”
Nicolas has also had no luck landing an apprenticeship because employers tend to see him as an insurance liability. “We understand that racing can be a dangerous sport, but it is dangerous whether or not you have your hearing,” says Scott. “Nic has been judged all his life as a person who is deaf. It is time as a society that we evolve and include people and find ways to provide opportunities and break down barriers.
“I feel confident in life because my dad has shown me that for every problem there are many solutions and you fight with dignity and respect to show others your value and strengths and then they will not only see your disability,” Nicolas says.
“Stereotypes about people who are deaf are old-fashioned opinions that my son and others will continue to challenge,” adds Scott, “but he needs the support of both the deaf and hearing community to do this. He recognizes that his struggles toward a career, employment and independence are the same that many faces within the deaf community, and he is united in that struggle for self-direction and fulfillment.” And, Scott continues, “Nicolas hopes other young people who are deaf will see how he has not given up on his dream despite the obstacles. We approached our situation with respect and dignity to all, and we hope that came through to everyone. After all, you can’t burn a community that you want to be a part of. Above all, we wanted people to see a hard-working young man, who happens to be deaf, trying to become a jockey, and the unjust plight before him.”
LINDSAY YEO: Finding happiness and acceptance in customer service
It’s rare to hear people boast about their customer service job, with its long, frustrating hours of dealing with complaints and difficult people on the phone or in person. But Lindsay Yeo is an exception: She loves her job, and talks about her days at work with excitement and humble appreciation.
For the past five years, Yeo, now in her mid-30s, has worked at Precision Nutrition, a company in Toronto that promotes healthier lifestyles through diet, exercise and proper nutrition with a team that includes experts in health, fitness and human performance. Yeo’s job focuses primarily on customer accounts, billing and general product information on the phone and through email. Her first few weeks, she says, were nerve-wracking—not because it was a new environment, but because Yeo has epilepsy and hasn’t had much luck in the workplace. Why? Many of her previous employers, she explains, didn’t understand how the condition affected her mentally and physically. “My memory may not be great on a day when I’m having seizures because most of them are smaller, and not necessarily visible to people,” she explains. “I’m extra tired from some of those seizures, so it does throw off my workday. It may not have me necessarily in the same focused mindset that I would have on a normal day, and I found that some people were not receptive to that, even after I’ve explained it.”
Unlike previous employers, Yeo’s boss at Precision took a positive approach, researching and familiarizing himself with her condition and medications, and also offering her help through the company’s abundant resources.
Despite such strong support and a desire to accommodate her needs, Yeo started cautiously. “I wasn’t on the telephones for the first couple of years because I didn’t know how calls with customers and clients would go,” she says, referring to her worries about having a seizure mid-call. “We made sure that I stepped into it slowly. I started out on four hours, worked up to six hours and only recently went up to a full eight.”
Yeo’s newfound workplace comfort has helped her open up to clients and share thoughts about her own challenges. “If someone has an interest in taking part in something that we offer, and it could be a health issue [for example, multiple sclerosis], I will open up to them and say, ‘You know what, I have epilepsy and I kind of understand where you’re coming from.’ I know we face different challenges but I have found ways to work around it and maybe they can, too.”
Prior to her current job, Yeo spent a year working at Sick Kids Hospital as an academic assistant, working exclusively with kids who had epilepsy. She says it was an inspiring experience to connect with children who felt scared or depressed: “I loved to share the different experiences I had growing up, and also being able to show them that, even with epilepsy, you can eventually have a job in the real world, and that your life is not necessarily coming to an end.”
JORDAN SCOTT: Discovering the poetry in stuttering
For as long as he can remember, Jordan Scott stuttered. While speech disorders are not uncommon, Scott’s occupation is—he’s a poet. That is to say, he makes part of his living (he is also an educator, currently teaching at Fraser International College in Vancouver, along with working at the Justice Education Society) by standing on stage and reciting in front of large, quiet audiences under bright, hot auditorium lights.
Scott began exploring the poetics of stuttering, he says, more metaphorically than directly in his first book, Stilt. But after its publication, he began to skirt around the subject less and started to address it more personally, diving into etymology and family history of stuttering.
“I’m really interested in all the aspects of stuttering and perhaps other speech disfluencies and difficulties with language failure,” he says. Still, he adds, “I think I always struggle with that aspect of myself in terms of poetry: Do I want to be the poet who stutters or the poet who writes about stuttering? I prefer to be the poet who writes about stuttering, but when I read, it doesn’t matter what subject I’m talking about, my speech disfluency is right out in the open.”
Scott is in his early 30s and has had much success as a poet. His second book, Blert, was turned into a Bravo! TV short called Stutter, which spun off into a short documentary for the National Film Board. His newest project, Decomp, a collaboration between Scott and poet Stephen Collis, began in 2004, when the two left about 500 copies of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species in the backwoods of British Columbia in a variety of climate zones, then came back a year later to collect them. The volume is a collection of their responses to the texts and photos of the decayed books. Decomp is set for publication this fall from Coach House Books.
Scott says other poets and writers have been incredibly accepting of his difference, and that it’s because he surrounds himself with other poets, writers and artists that he has become more comfortable with stuttering. In the beginning, though, it was difficult. He recalls the first time he was on stage reading his work. “I would rehearse for weeks in advance so that I would have a very minimal stutter, because I was really hesitant to make that a part of what I do. It was only several years afterwards that I decided I was going to stop rehearsing.”
Scott doesn’t pretend that the stutter doesn’t bother him, but he has come to terms with it. “I still have difficult days, or minutes or weeks or months, with speech,” he says. “However, I think I’m at a point in my life now where I realize I don’t have a choice. I don’t want to cure myself in any way because it’s so much of who I am. I think it’s almost liberating, a sense of freedom.”
Scott has lectured and read his work at universities throughout Canada and the US, along with a stint in Rhodes, Greece, where he was the writer-in-residence at the International Writers’ and Translators’ Center. One of his favourite moments was at a lecture in Calgary, while reading from Blert:
“There was a young boy in the audience, I think he was about 15 or so, and I could actually hear him reading along with my poetry. That was wonderful. His mother brought him because he struggles with stuttering as well, and he heard me on CBC. It was really awesome to have him there.”
SHANNON DEVIDO: Fighting for a more inclusive entertainment industry
Shannon DeVido likes to give personal tours of her hometown, Philadelphia, from the back of her wheelchair. She does it for her web series, Stare at Shannon, but mainly she does it for a laugh. In the first episode, for example, DeVido zoomed through fast-food drive-throughs in her wheelchair because, she says, “Why not?” She had four wheels and money, and was in need of a beverage. The web series, launched in November 2012, showcases DeVido, who has spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, in a series of hilarious scenes such as riding in a DeLorean, pretending to be Rocky, and learning to be an exotic dancer.,/p>
“If I’m going to be stared at, I might as well be doing something awesome!” says DeVido, now in her 30s, who has been a professional actress, singer and comedian for 10 years and whose goal is “to break the conventional image of disability through comedy.”
“As a comedian and a comedic actress, I want to play characters that are quirky and funny and ridiculous,” she says. “The difficulty is getting past that persona that you can only play a person with a disability, [who is usually] thick or mentally disabled or depressed.”
Her upcoming project, currently gathering funding through Kickstarter, is an adaptation of Good Beer, a short play by Sam Hunter, an award-winning playwright. It’s a love story, told through humour, about a woman in a wheelchair and a man without a hand who navigate the awkward world of dating.
“There are hardly any characters with disabilities on television that are smart and funny and strong,” says DeVido. “They always portray this sad kind of character that you should feel bad for.”
A recent New York Times review of Good Beer hails DeVido as “a gifted comedian who can get a laugh just by taking a bite of a potato chip…. It takes a versatile performer to make a comment like ‘Why don’t we just be a cripple and a handless freak?’ both playful and deadly serious.”
Trying to make it as an actor is never easy, and DeVido says the beginning was difficult, primarily because of inaccessible theatre stages and closed minds: “I hope the [resistance to employing an actor who uses] a wheelchair will go away, but I think we’re definitely getting further along with getting that out of people’s brains.”
DeVido is a force of nature who acted on her passion and is now pursuing her dreams. “Finding something that you love and that you’re passionate about, regardless of what it is, is going to give you a better outlook on life,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky to have comedy, but there’s art, there’s movies, there’s books. If you love it, it’s going to make you feel better about yourself.”
Vesna Plazacic is a freelance writer, living in Toronto, Ontario. She writes about international affairs, local arts, culture and social and political issues.