Years ago – decades ago now, actually, well back in the last century before this one – I worked for an organization in Toronto called Frontier College. Its mission was (and still is) to provide literacy opportunities for adult Canadians. Those of whom it can truly be said, “They slipped through the cracks.”
They slip through for a number of reasons. To make a very long story short, way back then when I was working there, the system slowly started to come around. Thanks to a number of important books (and their authors) that lent themselves to progressive new movements in education, we stopped blaming the victim and started to realize, or admit, even, that some people have special needs when it comes to learning.
As you can well imagine, this became a very political and charged revolution. One of the areas that I became involved in was working with people with physical disabilities, trying to get them access to the various school systems in Toronto. Honestly, it’s hard to believe it now, but 30 years ago, just getting a ramp built or a washroom door widened to accommodate a kid in a wheel chair was often seen as a major inconvenience.
Well, that was then and this is now, I guess. Late last year, a young man named Caylan Boyse came into my life. Caylan suffered a serious spinal cord injury in a car accident in Saskatchewan a few years ago. As a result, he is now in a wheel chair, and dealing with kinds of issues that surprisingly, to me at least, haven’t gone away, haven’t been taken care of in the time I’ve been away from the issue, in particular housing and transportation,
Caylan’s mother, Helen McPhaden, and I were working on another project (see my post Attention Must Be Paid, December, 2012) and she expressed her frustration about the many issues that arise regarding Caylan’s situation.
And so I listened first to Helen and then to Caylan with a stunned sense of disbelief. Although some thirty years have passed since I was involved with people with disabilities and their frustrations, I was astonished to discover that during that time, very little has changed. Housing is still an issue. Accessibility is still in issue. Beyond the dramatic impact of the injury and the difficult rehabilitation, the peripheral things, the day to day things, are still difficult, and those are the things that will grind you down and cause a mother to wring her hands: the van door that is never fixed properly, the insurance settlement that never covers the things you need it to cover, a million little things that most of us never have to think about that collectively create a barrier to any kind of easy experience for people in Caylan’s position.
I have written again and again that the measure of a society’s success can be gauged by its art, and how it values (or doesn’t value) its artists. But it must be at least as true that our success must also be seen in the care and compassion that we show for people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in difficult and extraordinary circumstances.
30 years have passed, and still so very little progress. It’s disheartening and frustrating and it makes you wonder just what has to happen for things to change in any significant manner.
I met Caylan on a warm winter’s evening at my favourite coffee shop in Calgary, Caffe Beano. I go there practically every day, and suddenly realized – for the first time – that there are steps leading up from the front counter, and back down again to the seating area at the back. For the first time, I actually paid attention and noticed that in my coffee shop, it’s impossible for Caylan or anyone else in a wheel chair to order their coffee and find a table, something the rest of us simply take for granted.
It’s those little things that we don’t notice that we need to start to notice if there’s ever going to be any meaningful change.
As a writer, knowing I wanted to write this piece, I could envision our discussion proceeding in an orderly fashion. In the tried and true journalistic style, I would ask the questions and Caylan would answer them, with me writing down some pithy quotes to reinforce my thesis. But our conversation turned out to be nothing like that. Nothing at all.
Caylan Boyse is a force to be reckoned with, make no mistake. He has a brilliant mind that runs fast and leaps high and you might as well put your little notebook away because you can’t write it down fast enough to keep up with him.
We talk about his billion dollar idea and his plans for his company, Live Entertainment Productions. (He’s not kidding.) If all goes according to plan, I just might have a job some day doing some writing for him. Before long we have touched upon his extended punk rock family across the country (it’s all about community!) not to mention his dream of going to India to seek treatment, to fly an airplane to the high arctic to really see the northern lights, to visit Machu Picchu. And on and on and on.
If you think a wheel chair is confining, you haven’t met Caylan Boyse who has one of the most unfettered minds you are likely to encounter.
But wait a minute, what about the Caylan Boyse Foundation? It’s hard to bring him down to talk about this foundation and what it hopes to accomplish. On one hand, the dream does exist to create a practical and even elegant living space for people in wheel chairs. On the other, there is the sincere desire to simply provide resources for people with spinal cord injuries. There is nothing very complicated about that, and it is so necessary, now as much as ever.
Calgary is one of the wealthiest cities in the world. If this can’t happen here, where else would we think it would happen?
And despite Caylan’s reluctance to talk much about the Foundation, it seems to me like an extremely important initiative, and with the well-meaning people behind it, one that could make a difference and enhance the quality of many people’s lives.
You can find out more and even show your support in the best way possible at caylanboysefoundation.ca.
Finally, after all these years, don’t you think it’s about time we did something? At least by now?
I’m leaving you with a cool rendition of one of my favourite songs that in some way seems to capture Caylan’s counter-culture vitality . . .
Thanks for reading!