British Columbia

'I was very ignorant': How being paralyzed changed one woman's view of how the world treats disabled people

A wheelchair user from Fort Nelson, B.C., is pushing for better accessibility for all, based on her own experiences struggling with moving around. 

After an accident severed her spinal cord, Kristi Leer has been using a wheelchair

Two years ago, Kristi Leer broke her collarbone and severed her spinal cord in a vehicle crash between Fort St. John and Chetwynd. (Submitted by Kristi Leer)

A wheelchair user from Fort Nelson in northeastern B.C. is pushing for better accessibility for all, based on her own experiences struggling with moving around. 

Two years ago, Kristi Leer severed her spinal cord in a vehicle crash. Since then, Leer has used a wheelchair to get around. 

Leer says the experience has been eye opening.

"You know when I got in this chair, I'm going to be very honest, my attitude toward persons with disabilities and wheelchairs was very ignorant, and when I say ignorant, I mean not knowing," Leer told host Carolina de Ryk on Daybreak North.

"The thing was I realized everybody in a wheelchair is the same as you and I ... The problem is the space we've allowed for all the humans in the world is not designated for a wheelchair."

Leer says one example is when she tries to park her car. Leer continued her work as a traffic instructor after the accident, in part by using a specialized vehicle that she can drive while sitting in her wheelchair. 

Kristi Leer next to her car. She estimates she needs about 12 feet of extra space near her car to get in and out safely. (Submitted by Kristi Leer)

However, the vehicle requires a lot of space around it so that she can get in and out of her car safely. To get in, she presses an automatic button on a remote to extend a five-foot ramp out of the drivers side. The wheelchair itself is around three-feet wide. 

"[Any parking space] needs to have an extra, I say, 12 feet beside of it for me to park in," she said.

And those spots are hard to come by. Leer tries to park next to empty spots, but if she returns to find someone has parked in it, she has to find that person, so that they can move their car.

Advocating for change

This week, Leer met with the South Fraser Active Living group in Vancouver. The group has already petitioned local municipalities about changing their parking space bylaws. 

Leer has already reached out to the provincial and federal governments. 

B.C.'s Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Shane Simpson said Leer's experience highlights the need to make the province more inclusive and accessible. 

"We're developing the province's first accessibility legislation, which will be informed by the ideas, experiences and feedback we heard from people like Kristen," Simpson said. "We know there's more to be done, but our government is making accessibility a priority."

His ministry says one aim of the legislation would be to create accessibility standards. 

Leer said she'll be reaching out to her mayor and council next. 

"When you can't get around in your area, there's no point in being anywhere and people are staying home because of it," Leer said.

Kristi Leer of Fort Nelson went off the road in 2018, severing her spinal cord and putting her in a wheelchair. Now, she's fighting to improve accessibility in B.C. 7:55

With files from Daybreak North

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