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Paralympic Gold Medallist Inspires Others To Rise Above Their Disabilities

Posted By Ronald Zajac, Staff Writer

November 21, 2008

It took some hurtful comments from a nurse to light the fire that propelled Karen Blachford to a gold medal victory.

The Brockville native, who was part of the Canadian gold medal curling team at the 2006 Paralympic Games in Turin, Italy, gave the keynote speech yesterday at "Breaking Down Barriers ... One Job at a Time," a conference at the 1000 Islands Mall on employment services for people with disabilities.

Now a multiple-medal-winning athlete and paralympic heroine, Blachford told the crowd how she was once unable to get out of bed and had to be strapped to her wheelchair because of spasms.

While at a rehabilitation facility in London, Ont., Blachford overheard a conversation among nurses who believed she was a drain on the system and would never leave the hospital - words that deeply hurt her, but motivated her to become a champion.

"Don't let anyone ever set your limitations," she said after getting repeated applause upon revealing her medals.

"Those nurses lit a fire in my heart and that fire is still there."

The daughter of Duncan and Betty-Lou Blachford, Karen attended Toniata Public School and graduated from Brockville Collegiate Institute and was studying at the University of Ottawa when she noticed changes happening to her body.

She went on to London to study speech and language pathology and the physical struggles continued.

She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and in the late 1980s ended up in a hospital bed, at one point unable to move, swallow or even breathe on her own, she recalled.

After a long period in acute care, she ended up at the rehabilitation facility, where, despite her hard work, she was not meeting staff's recovery expectations.

That was when those fateful words struck her heart.

One night, as she was making her way in the halls in her wheelchair, she approached the nurses' station, where the desk was so high the nurses could not see her.

She stopped when she heard them mention her name.

"What I heard was that I was wasting the space of a rehab bed," recalled Blachford, adding they were saying she would never get out of the facility and should be moved to a different facility.

"I was insulted by what I heard. I was emotionally upset by what I heard."

At the same time, that insult lit a fire in her of determination, said Blachford.

She recalled one nurse, Joan, who, unlike those nurses at the station, gave her positive feedback and encouragement and motivated her to do a little bit better at each try.

Blachford used Joan's example to illustrate her belief in "the power of one": the ability of a single individual to make a meaningful difference in the life of a disabled person.

Blachford ended up in her own attendant care apartment, from which she reluctantly tackled the challenge of getting a part-time job in "the able-bodied world."

She eventually became involved in wheelchair baseball and sledge hockey, and through her love of sports regained her confidence and self-esteem.

The result was an impressive track record, including multiple gold medals in track and field at the Ontario Provincial Championships for the Physically Disabled in the late 1990s, a place in the history books as the first paraplegic ice hockey referee in North America and a silver medal at the 2002 World Wheelchair Curling Championship in Sursee, Switzerland.

Her crowning achievement in sports was being part of the gold-medal-winning Canadian paralympic wheelchair curling team in Turin at the 2006 Winter Paralympic Games.

But Blachford continues to vault over barriers in the working world and is currently employed at RBC's main branch in Kingston. She is also a certified fitness and health promotion consultant.

"Remember the power of one," she told the crowd.

"Remember how powerful each one of you is in each of your interactions with a person with a disability."

Agencies serving people with disabilities should always put the client at the centre of the team determining his or her care, added Blachford.

Her key message focused on what she called the "ACE program," which she defines as accountability, collaboration and expertise, combining personal goals and effort with the ability to leverage the right partners.

"What she said is so true," said Maitland resident Heike Meier, 64, who also has multiple sclerosis and sat in on Blachford's speech.

"You have to have that drive in yourself," said Meier, who agrees it's important to have people around you who can help you along.

Yesterday's conference was sponsored by the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which ran the event in partnership with local agencies, CSE Consulting Inc., Northern Lights and Edge Vocational Services Inc.

ODSP program supervisor Cheryl Garrity said the Brockville event was one of a series across southeastern Ontario, including conferences in Perth, Kingston, Belleville and four more slated in rural communities in the Belleville area.

"The purpose of it is to bring our community partners together so that we can better serve persons with disabilities in our communities."

Bringing these agencies together allows people with particular disabilities who are looking for work to figure out where they best fit in the support system, while those agencies learn from each other as well, said Garrity.

The event included 11 booths at the western end of the mall and Garrity was pleased with the attendance, noting a mall setting is ideal for drawing members of the community.

Article ID# 1308731

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