Jennifer with a handsome helper (photo: Jennifer Burgmann)
By Spencer van Vloten
August 23rd, 2021
Disabled after 4 decades of living without a disability, the barriers Surrey's Jennifer Burgmann suddenly faced led her to create the popular website A Day in the Life of a PWD (Person with a Disability) and Facebook page to discuss the "giggles and gripes" of living with a disability.
We talked with Jennifer about how acquiring a disability changed her life, her video that has gone viral, and what stories mean the most to her.
First, tell us about yourself
Jennifer: I spent 4 decades of my life as a non-disabled person. In December 2009 I became sick after a series of vaccinations and developed Bickerstaff brainstem encephalitis. I spent 6 weeks in a coma, 18 months in a hospital, and the next few years in rehab.
As a result of this I started using a wheelchair, and very quickly I became acutely aware of how differently I was being treated, when the only thing that had changed about me was my physical abilities.
I was still the same person, with the same needs and desires and wants as everyone else, but now I was treated differently.
I was still the same person... but now I was treated differently
This really got me thinking about inclusion, accessibility, equality, because all of a sudden I was forced to confront these things in my life.
And that’s why I started the Facebook page and blog—to talk about the everyday giggles and gripes of being a person with a disability.
Of the stories you feature on your website and social media, which do you consider the most important?
Jennifer: I’ve been really interested in how the pandemic has impacted long-term care and the elderly.
It’s highlighted the lack of support for these people and everyone should want to see this addressed, because if you live long enough you’ll be among these groups too.
The way I put it is "don’t say you’re not disabled, say you’re not disabled yet.”
Don't say you're not disabled, say you're not disabled yet
I know that physical accessibility is a big issue for you
Jennifer: I’m interested in physical accessibility for everyone - whether it’s for people who are blind, hearing impaired, have mobility limitations, or other disabilities.
If we’re going to spend time and money on infrastructure for our cities and communities, we must put the effort into researching accessibility and making public spaces for everyone in life.
You may not be disabled now, but if you live into your 60s, 70s, or beyond you probably will be.
You posted a video of the daily accessibility challenges you’ve faced in Surrey - why did you decide to film these?
Jennifer: The 2 main barriers I face day-to-day are attitude and physical accessibility.
I use a power wheelchair to travel inside of Surrey instead of transit. But I regularly find there are obstacles that I’d never have to face if I were a foot pedestrian.
A lot of people don’t realize it if they don’t have a disability or don’t live with someone who does. They’re likely to overlook things like a garbage can or construction sign in the middle of the sidewalk.
In making the video, I wanted to give people an idea of what’s happening, so people who don’t use a wheelchair or scooter get a clearer picture of what it’s like to encounter obstacles 365 days a year.
In this video, Jennifer captured some of the accessibility barriers she faces every day
The other main issue’s the attitude that people without disabilities have toward people with disabilities.
They make a lot of assumptions, for example that if someone’s in a wheelchair they’re also cognitively impaired, or that if someone has Down syndrome they can’t take care of themselves or do things on their own.
There's a federal election next month - what do you want to see addressed?
Jennifer: It's really important to address poverty in this country with regards to people with disabilities and seniors.
I was surprised to see the federal government decide the basic standard of living should be $2000 a month when disabled and seniors aren't getting anywhere near that regularly.
That should be basic standard for everyone, and I think it’s very important this is dealt with.
Government also must address long-term care and seniors’ facilities. With baby boomers coming into senior years, the need will be huge.
What else should people know?
Jennifer: The most important thing I want to add is that 15 percent of the world lives with a disability, this isn't a small group, yet we’re still marginalized and treated small.
Many people in the disability community have a lot to offer, but society needs to give them the opportunity to do that.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!