My dad had a very entrepreneurial spirit. In Canada, we think nothing of popping into a Loblaw’s or Safeway for groceries, but a large western-style supermarket was a very novel concept in Pakistan, in the 1990s. He was the first one to start a self-serve supermarket in Karachi. I strongly believe that I have inherited my fathers’ entrepreneurial spirit; I hope so. I have enrolled in the Self-Employment Program at the BC Institute of Technology, and am working to establish my own Accessible Travel business. I am an Accessible Travel Specialist and work with a home based travel agency called Travel for All, Inc.
Like other Pakistani children, at the time, I was also immunized for polio as a child by oral polio vaccine. I took the drops but contracted polio, nevertheless, at age one. It was either a bad batch or it was just not working. I still got polio. It started as a flu-like illness and, by the time the symptoms subsided, my mother found I didn’t want to move. The doctor said, “Well, it’s unfortunate, but your daughter’s been paralyzed in one leg by polio.”
I wore a series of braces, above the knee, below the knee and, at one time, a boot. It constricted my movement and made me stand out from others. “I was never able to play with other children nor was I able to take part in physical activities, like other children. I have never been able to run, dance or participate in any sport. At school, I used to get pushed around. That made me very angry because I was not like everyone else. I used to ask myself, “Why am I different? Why can’t I do everything that other children are doing?” That made me very, very angry.
I played with my siblings and cousins, instead. There was never a time that I was sitting alone or reading books or sulking and crying or feeling sorry for myself. I was determined to show everyone that I was no different from anybody else. I pursued a medical degree at Karachi University, in Pakistan and graduated as a medical doctor (M.B.,B.S.) in 1985.
When I was going to med school with other girls and boys I didn’t want to go in wearing my braces. I just said to myself, “To hell with it. I’m not going to wear these braces because they’re ugly!” I was a teenager and teenagers talk like that. I was quite rebellious
I left Pakistan in 1990. Things were pretty bad; the level of corruption was skyrocketing. I immigrated to Los Angeles and then in 1994, I moved to Vancouver and took a job as a research assistant at St. Paul’s Hospital. Other positions followed – as a laboratory manager and as a histologist – until a colleague suggested that I pursue a career in medical research. In 2004, I enrolled at University of British Columbia. I worked in bio-medical research for several years with professors and assistant professors, hashing out a lot of data. It was monotonous. It got me to a point where I was thinking, “Yes, I’m getting a paycheck but am I enjoying doing what I’m doing?” And I wasn’t. So, from that, using my medical background, I moved to medical claims examiner with a travel insurance company because I wanted a change.”
My body was changing, too. Once you hit 45 or 50, post-polio syndrome shows up. The fatigue level increases, there’s a loss of a balance, aches and pains. Sleeping problems can arise. For me, walking had become extremely difficult to impossible.
Now in a wheelchair, I toiled at the travel insurance company for nine years until the pain became unbearable. I got to a point where I just couldn’t manage the stress of a nine-to-five job and I decided to quit altogether.
I enjoyed being out of work for a while; sleeping in, going out, meeting friends, knitting, reading and catching up on things that I had put on the back burner for years. But, more importantly, I finally found peace.
In my 20s and 30s, I was fighting this uphill battle and, each time, I was fighting a battle I
was losing. But I kept fighting because I didn’t know any better, I have always fretted over my appearance. When I hit my forties, I realized, “What the heck if I am in a wheelchair, if I am walking on my hands instead of my legs, who cares?” What is important is who I am, and that is when I had accepted being in a wheelchair and using a wheelchair. It’s okay if I have a disability. It’s okay if I cannot walk and run like others. People will find me as attractive, as sexy and as desirable as anyone else. That was the biggest motivation and transformation that caused me to enter the 2017 Miss Wheelchair Canada pageant.
My daily routine has changed. I tire easily, but I look after myself well. I sleep well and don’t drink or smoke. I conserve my energy; allowing me to look after my 83-year-old mother and to work part-time for Travel for All, Inc as an Accessible Travel Specialist.
I love to talk about my trip to Egypt which was back in 2009. Egypt is very inaccessible, but they will [physically] carry you no matter how and take you to whatever you want to see, wherever you want to go and make sure you have a good time. Of course, you have to generously tip them, but they will make it happen for you.
I am generally careful with my health, but post-polio syndrome hasn’t dampened my spirits. I zip lined in Whistler, British Columbia last August and it was an amazing experience! They make sure that they harness you nice and tight, remove the wheelchair from under you and off you go! I even danced in my wheelchair for the first time, last year at the Miss Wheelchair Canada 2017, as pageant participant. This pageant was organized by The Wheelchair Dance Sport Association of Canada. We were trained and guided by able bodied instructors to practice various routines, primarily ballroom and Latin. You just have fun! You just feel the excitement, the emotions, and the chemistry with your partner and you do the dance moves. You do those positions to the best of your ability.
Now, I have cut back on my volunteer pursuits for non-profit charitable organizations like The Aga Khan Foundation Canada that organizes The World Partnership Walk annually, to alleviate poverty in the developing countries and also help the developing nations, with their education and health care needs. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) matches, and sometimes exceeds, every dollar raised. I am just a fundraiser. Even if I raise just a thousand dollars every year, I’m very proud of myself because those thousand dollars are multiplied up to three times and three thousand goes a very long way in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh
An immigrant myself, I like to help newcomers who are struggling with money, marital or health problems. I’m involved in a program in the Islamali community called the Quality of Life Program. When a family needs support, they’ll contact a team leader in the community center. Once their needs are assessed, we have team members who can help with housing or finding a job or a better paying job. We have women who can provide counseling on marital problems. That’s the component that I’m involved with, where a mother needs to be well-equipped to take care of the family and take care of the children.
Despite my own issues with fatigue, it’s surprising that I can spend so much time helping
Today, I don’t expect people to look at my wheelchair. I expect them to see me for who I am; and they do see me for who I am despite the wheelchair. Show the world you can be as good as anyone else, even better.
Even better. That is the motto that I live by.
For more information about the World Partnership Walk, visit www.worldpartnershipwalk.com
For more information about Miss Wheelchair Canada, visit www.misswheelchaircanada.ca
For more information about Travel for All, visit https://travel-for-all.com
Contact me at Tabassum@travel-for-all.com for all your Accessible Travel needs