For Two Little Girls; The Importance of Representation – Julia Hanes

For Two Little Girls; the Importance of Representation

by June Jang

Julia Hanes, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Ottawa and a Canada Games gold medalist in para-athletics, often thinks about the two little girls in wheelchairs she met as a med student while on placement at a hospital.

I tell the story sometimes of two little girls who were wheelchair users and who were just awe-struck when they saw me, not because I was so beautiful or so smart or so anything, (but because) I looked like them,” Hanes says.  

Hanes acquired her disability, hemiplegia, which is a condition that leads to paralysis on one side of the body, at age 17. Having attended three hospitals during her rehabilitation process and meeting countless doctors over the years, she wonders if seeing a physician with a disability would have changed how quickly she came to terms with her disability. As one of the first medical students in Ottawa U history to use a wheelchair on a regular basis—according to the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine—she thinks of these two girls in challenging times as a reminder of the impact of representation.

“I think about them when there’s a lot of accessibility challenges at school, when I’m getting a lot of pushback for accommodations, when somebody in the hallway, whoever it may be—physician, nurse, [physiotherapist], [occupational therapist]—asks, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and I start to get frustrated about having a disability and being in medical education. I think about how important it is to continue to push for representation of people with disabilities in medicine,” she says.

Hanes used to dream of becoming a chemist, a subject she was quite good at in high school. However, after acquiring her disability, she realized that the university chemistry labs may not be accessible to her. For this reason, she was more than thrilled when she found out that she had been accepted into the Health Sciences program at McMaster University. She initially had no interest in the program but applied following her high school English teacher’s suggestion.

It was during her undergrad, through her involvement with the CanChild Centre—a childhood disability research and educational centre within the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster—that she discovered her calling.

“I discovered that A) I like clinical research more (than lab work) and B) I thought it would be really cool to be a physician and to give back to my community, to people with disabilities,” she says.

However, adapting to university life wasn’t a smooth ride for Hanes. Although the idea of getting a fresh start and being surrounded by people who didn’t know her story appealed to her, she says the first year of her undergrad was probably the most challenging despite the attitude on campus being very progressive and inclusive.

“I acquired (my disability) in January of 2013, and that September I went to university with all of these new impairments. My left hand didn’t work properly. My left foot didn’t work properly. I couldn’t walk, I was using this wheelchair, and it was winter, and I was coming up on a year where I didn’t get better,” she says. “I was doing okay in school, but I really started to struggle socially, feeling like I didn’t belong. And (I struggled) being in that head space, like, ‘What am I doing? Why am I doing this?’”

As one of her coping mechanisms, she threw herself into work to prove to herself and others that she was just as capable as she used to be.

“It literally feels like the old you died, and then there’s a new you, right? And I think the way that I coped was I made myself very, very busy, almost as if to prove to myself that I was just as capable, I was just as strong, I was just as athletic, I was just as caring. I was ‘just as’ all of these things before. I built my identity around my [able-bodied] identity that was something I was very proud of. It almost made that disability less difficult,” she says.

She credits sports for playing a huge part in her recovery process as well. “Honestly, sports were a huge part of my return to function and my ability to cope,” she says. The first parasport she was introduced to following her injury was para ice hockey (formerly known as sledge hockey), which she was strongly encouraged to try by one of the custodians at a summer camp for kids with disabilities where she volunteered from June to August of 2013. She gives credit to para ice hockey for getting her back to playing sports again. 

“[Sledge hockey] was the first one to get me really active. And the community is something that—people don’t talk about it a lot—but having a good group of people with disabilities, even if you’re not talking about disabilities all the time, you learn tips and tricks from them. There’s a common understanding that everybody just gets it,” she says. “I tried it and it was the first time in eight months I really felt like I just had actual tons of fun. I loved it. My disability did not matter. And it was just so freeing. Nobody really cared what happened to me. And it was nice to be seen not as someone who is disabled, and not as someone who is not whole, but just an athlete,” she says.

Hanes has always been an athlete. She grew up playing multiple sports at a competitive level; she swam, played soccer, figure skated for 13 years, and dabbled in volleyball, cross-country and more.

Since sledge hockey reawakened her love for sports, she has gone on to participate in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, and para-athletics at competitive or high-performance levels.

She thinks there are major advantages to being a multisport athlete because of the transferrable skills and aptitude she developed that are required in all sports.

Credit: Malcolm Bernstein

“Like the chair skill—from wheelchair basketball to wheelchair rugby and vice versa—and thinking about plays in advance is helpful regardless in whatever sports you play. And I think the core of it is that at one point, you are athletic, so you have a certain level of fitness, you have a certain level of drive, you have a certain level of intelligence or sport aptitude to figure out plays and stuff. And I think those skills are very broadly applicable in sports but life in general,” she says.

Hanes’ unique ability to adapt her life around her disability has been noted by many in some of the creative solutions she employs and mobility devices she utilizes. For instance, to play rugby, she uses a wrist sleeve she bought from a drug store with a linebacker glove and some tape to efficiently push the rugby chair around; to play sledge hockey, she uses a massive arm splint—which her Orthotist made for her—and a stick that is longer than the one she tapes to her hand, which helps her to push evenly; to navigate inaccessible spaces, she wears her “robot legs” (a powered exoskeleton device) which she funded through a GoFundMe campaign; and to help her get around campus, she rode a tricycle everywhere for three years.

Hanes is also very mindful of which assistive device she uses depending on the environment she’s in and the tasks she must perform.

“I describe it as choosing a pair of shoes for the day. Whatever makes sense depending on the environment—so thinking about the tasks you’re going to do that day, what you need to do, what you need to accomplish and what your goals are—you make a decision about what aid is best for you in that context. So, if I have a 26-hour call shift, which we have, I’m not going to use either a cane or robot legs. A wheelchair would be the most convenient option,” she says.

The last seven years of learning to adapt her life around her disability and participating in multiple parasports has been an eye opening experience for Hanes to understand the additional barriers women and girls with disabilities face while getting involved in sports. As a strong advocate for women and girls with disabilities, she says sport participation is and should be a human right.

“Girls, we know, participate in sports until a certain age for many, many reasons and then stop participating. Period. The important thing for females with disabilities in sports, is often their participation starts later; they are often participating in a co-ed environment that is predominantly male; and they have the same barriers to participation as every other girl on the planet, plus their disabilities and all of these other things that are going on,” she says. “So, I think that knowing how big of a difference sports played in my life as an able-bodied kid growing up and as someone who acquired a disability, I think that it’s almost a right, it should be a right for people to be involved in sports to reap those benefits to learn skills like hard work, adaptability, team work, and all of those things.”

Hanes says even though there may be challenges and tough times ahead, she will strive to pave a way for better representation of people with disabilities in the medical field. By doing that, she hopes other wheelchair users—like those two little girls—receive better medical care.

You have to think about how many hundreds of doctors, nurses and physios [the two girls] have seen, and that probably was their first experience ever seeing someone who looked like them actually caring for them, which is pretty remarkable,” she says. “I never saw a doctor with a disability [during my recovery] and I never saw someone who looked like me. I had a lot of good doctors and a lot of bad doctors. I thought to myself I could add to the pool of good.”

Update: Since this article was originally written, Julia has graduated from medical school and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia to pursue a five-year residency in physical medicine & rehabilitation at UBC. She continues to play wheelchair rugby with Team BC (BC Wheelchair Sports Association) and has been enjoying outdoor activities like open water swimming.

You can follow Julia on Twitter at @juliathelefty

About the Ontario Para Network

Formerly known as the Ontario Wheelchair Sports Association, our mission at the Ontario Para Network (ONPARA) is to grow opportunities for participation in adaptive sports across Ontario. As the governing body for wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, and wheelchair tennis in the province, we strive to offer opportunities for individuals with disabilities to participate in recreational, competitive, and high performance programs. We lead, develop, support and advocate for athletes, coaches and volunteers to build strong and inclusive sport communities. We also deliver extensive outreach and education programs targeting schools as well as individuals and clinicians at rehabilitation hospitals and the broader health care sector.