By: Simran Dhaliwal
Photo courtesy of: Rick Hansen School Program
Teri Thorson is a brilliant individual who incorporates so many different things into her life, such as fashion, motivational speaking, sports, and being a mom. I had the pleasure of sitting with her and talking about what she does. To her, her first priority at the moment is being a mother to her son. But on top of that, she also has a rich world with the aforementioned pursuits.
Before her injury, Teri had a background as a fashion model. She stated: “I always loved fashion, but I’m very tall and I’ve always been quite thin, so once I was in a wheelchair, I had a really hard time finding clothes that fit properly. The biggest problem I had was in the length. Eventually, I decided I was going to start my own business.” It took her five years of finding the right people to create Normal? Fashion. Her goal is to create simple clothes that won’t go out of style. In Teri’s opinion, it is very important for everyone, including able-bodied people to find clothes that fit properly, which is difficult as not everyone matches the mannequins in stores. That’s why businesses like hers are so important for providing custom made clothes for women who are seated. Inclusivity is always a good thing!
Teri was 24 when she got injured, and it impacted her perception of herself, especially related to her appearance. When she went into rehab, this is how she felt initially: “I’d never owned a pair of track pants or running shoes in my life. And that felt like the only option. I felt like I had lost my sexuality and now I’m a quadriplegic. That’s my identity now. I’m not even a woman anymore. I always used to wear short skirts and high heeled shoes and it felt like that part of my life was over. Even now, I refuse to wear track pants. Being able to find something you feel good in is so important.” One’s appearance is deeply tied to one’s perception of themselves. This is why options for people with disabilities are so important – so that they can still express their personality.
Besides her ventures into fashion, Teri is also an avid athlete. Before her injury, she wasn’t really into any athletics besides dancing, which (despite my protest), she does not see as enough to make her athletic. Teri said, “I hated sports. When I first got hurt and went into rehab, they were really trying to push sports on me and I kept thinking ‘No, I’m not athletic! I hate sports. I hate sports!’ And then I met a few people who were in wheelchairs and they were also trying to get me to come out. And then one day, I finally decided to go try it. I met someone who took people kayaking and he just had so much energy and passion that I decided to go try kayaking. I really liked it, and it opened me up to try different things.” This change in Teri’s attitude to sports shows how flexible our set expectations about ourselves can be. Teri has also participated in marathons like the Sun Run and various track events. To Teri, the community aspect of sports is really important and is what drew her into participating in the first place.
Teri, after trying out different things, developed a passion for racing and moved to Australia to train full time. She then went to Athens for the Paralympic Games. She came in 8th place in the 400 meters, which is an amazing accomplishment! She still humbly denies to be a traditional athlete, claiming that she raced because she liked it. That’s the point when she decided to start her line of clothing. Regarding her athletic ventures she said, “I do it to stay connected to the community. I do it because I still want to be healthy and fit and to be able to take care of myself for as long as possible.” While she doesn’t race anymore, she does wheelchair rugby. If you wish to get involved with wheelchair sports like Teri, you can check out bcwheelchairsports.com.
I asked Teri a bit about Vancouver as a city and how we are in terms of accessibility. Teri said that Vancouver is getting better, but still has the minor issues that every place does. The main barriers that she finds to be prominent are that of ignorance. Vancouver can do a lot better with our attitude and our preconceived barriers. It’s a matter of education. Teri believes that “Many people think living in a wheelchair is the most horrible thing. That’s why we seem so inspirational – because they could never imagine that for themselves. We are so much more than ‘not walking’. Asking questions is really important. If you’re curious, just ask. Not everyone’s gonna be receptive to it, but I would rather have people ask me if I need help or why I’m in a wheelchair than just assume. The biggest thing is asking for help. Many people, if they see you struggling, will just do it for you and that’s not always the right thing to do. Our wheelchairs are not footrests or armrests, but a part of our bodies”. Teri’s words ring true. It may seem daunting to appear ignorant, but it is clearly better than making assumptions about a person, and in turn infantilising them. No one ever stops learning, and that’s okay, as long as we keep an open mind and aren’t afraid to ask.
As a side note, Teri also talked a bit about something that the media often gets wrong, saying “another term that the media likes to use is ‘wheelchair-bound’. Our wheelchair gives us freedom. It’s liberating to have a wheelchair. We’re certainly not bound to it”. This is a really interesting examination of a common misconception. Teri also pointed out that she is not tied to her wheelchair in any way, connecting to her previous idea of able-bodied people sometimes not being able to even imagine being disabled themselves. Voices like Teri’s are pivotal to challenge misconceptions like this.
Teri, on top of all her other interests, is also a Rick Hansen Foundation Ambassador. She does talks for them and also on her own, going out and and giving talks at schools, sharing stories and teaching people about accessibility and “what disability means and about different types of disability”. On this, Teri believes that “obviously, I represent one type of disability with having a spinal cord injury and being in a wheelchair, but my needs are very different from someone who maybe can’t hear or can’t see.” Teri’s admission of not being able to speak for different types of disabilities is important. This awareness helps in imparting education to people she talks to.
I asked Teri about some of the challenges of being a motivational speaker. She replied: “challenges include sometimes not knowing if you’ve connected to an audience. Sometimes its just hard to tell your story over and over again”. Despite this occasional uncertainty, Teri has a lot of great moments when speaking. She gave me this touching anecdote: “What I love the most about it is that you’re educating people and impacting them. I ran into a girl—I spoke to her school when she was 12, now she’s 22—and she’s like ‘I’ve never forgotten you. You’ve changed my whole life about what disability meant.’ And now, she’s volunteering at the Spinal Cord Centre. How cool is that?” Teri herself works part time for Spinal Cord Injury BC as well, helping them with recruitment for research, events that they have, and as a health coach.
It was amazing to sit and chat with Teri and learn so much about what she does. As a parting note, she encourages our readers to check out wheelchair sports and volunteering with Spinal Cord BC by visiting their website at sci-bc.ca/get-involved/volunteer.
Remember that you can always learn. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to ask questions.