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Jen Powley: An Educated Woman

Editor's Note: Helen McFadyen is the former President of AEBC's Halifax, Nova Scotia, Chapter.

Born in Vegreville, Alberta, a small farming community one hour east of Edmonton, Jen Powley had an average Canadian childhood. She describes it as happy and healthy--enjoying ballet, Ukrainian dance, karate, swimming, water-skiing, basketball, and more--but in her teens, she began having difficulty running and doing ballet. At age 15, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), and by age 21 she was using a wheelchair. But MS, along with optic neuritis (which has resulted in legal blindness), has not dampened her determined effort to obtain an education, though she needs attendants to help her with every physical activity, assistance that has made her academic career possible.

Jen attended the University of Alberta in the faculty of rehabilitation medicine, after two years of which she moved to King's University College in Edmonton, where she completed a BA in Social Sciences. Later, she travelled east to work on a Bachelor of Journalism degree at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. While there, she helped to establish a policy to facilitate equal rights for students with physical and learning disabilities. Jen now calls Halifax home and attends Dalhousie University, where she is working on a Masters degree in Land Use Planning.

When I met the woman I had heard so much about within the Halifax community, I found her to be very quiet spoken and dignified. When I asked, "Why are there so few students with disabilities attending university?" her thoughtful response was, "There is very little reason for students with disabilities to attend university. Without the supports in place to help them become employed, what's the point?" She would like to see a program in Nova Scotia to pay for the assistance needed by university graduates with disabilities. Currently, they have to pay for their own supports in the workplace.

We also exchanged ideas about the role of technical aids in education. Jen asked rhetorically, "How do you define technical aids?" She continued, "I think a shift in attitudes is more important than technology. This is not to say that technology is unimportant, but I think that it needs to be secondary to attitudes."

This prompted me to ask about barriers to employment. What factors impacted most on young university students with disabilities seeking jobs--inaccessible workplaces, lack of adaptive technology, employers' misconceptions about the abilities of disabled people, the attitudes of co-workers? Jen replied, "I think the biggest barrier to employment might be within the individuals themselves. Maybe people with disabilities don't think they're as good as able-bodied people. They don't think others will understand."

She also acknowledged several things that contributed to her successful post-secondary education. They included hard work, determination, strong family support and resources. Jen has received the Rosetti Scholarship and the Planning Director's of Nova Scotia Award, and her most recent honour was the Governor's Award, given to five students at Dalhousie for "Outstanding Contributions to Campus Life." When I asked her of which accomplishment she was most proud, she replied, "I don't think I would include any award or degree as the personal accomplishment I care the most about. The achievement I value the most is much more personal than that."

Presently, Jen is the Sustainable Transportation Coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre of Nova Scotia, and her future goals include completing her Masters of Planning degree. She has been accepted to the Dalhousie Law School, but she has not yet decided if she will attend. When she previously worked as Coordinator with the NS League for Equal Opportunities, she wrote numerous briefs and papers. I recently read Jen's study of Accessible Taxi Service, presented to Peter Kelly, the Mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality. A taskforce will be formed to bring this issue to the forefront.

Jen said, "I want to fight for the equality of all persons, not just the disabled. The need (for equality) cuts across such distinctions. New immigrants and people with lower incomes need help in their struggle. Someone also needs to fight for the environment."