The Unstoppable and Unflappable Sally Thomas
by Mary Dufton
Sally Thomas is a disability advocate, athlete and artist with unstoppable energy and charm.
Born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus in 1970, Sally lived in Toronto and Belleville before moving to Ottawa in 1989 to study recreation at Algonquin College. Sally is a dedicated volunteer at the Ottawa Rehabilitation Centre, supporting recreation therapists in delivering an array of activities for the patients such as games, art, yoga and meditation or just a friendly chat. She is also a peer mentor with Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, visiting people in rehabilitation who are adjusting to living with a spinal cord injury.
Sally’s birth parents were new immigrants from Trinidad with three other young children. Not knowing Sally’s medical prognosis, they decided to put her up for adoption. Sally lived at Bloorview Kids Rehab (formerly the Ontario Centre for Crippled Children), then a group home before moving to a foster home with her family who adopted her at age 12. Sally has seven siblings – four of whom have disabilities.
Recently, Sally has reconnected with her birth parents. She calls it “an emotional journey that we are all processing in our own ways.” That said, Sally now has an even bigger family which also includes her two birth parents whom she calls “Auntie” and “Uncle’, three brothers (one brother passed away) their partners and children. Like Sally, her brothers are athletic and love sports.
In school, Sally faced many challenges, both academic and social. “Hydrocephalus in particular, made school difficult. Using a wheelchair made me different and subject to a lot of bullying, particularly in high school.”
Sally soon took control of the bullying. During lunch hours, she rented out her wheelchair to her peers for a small fee of 25 to 50 cents. This was an effective way to control their abuse and gave Sally enough money to buy lunch in the cafeteria. All was good in Sally’s world until her teacher found out and called her mother. Unlike the teacher, Sally’s mom supported her and thought she was clever.
Since she was 10, Sally has been involved in several adaptive sports including basketball and track and field. Her parents enrolled Sally in as many adaptive sports as they could.
Sally has also enjoyed curling, sledge hockey, table tennis, horseback riding, boxing and skiing. She has a green belt in jiu-jitsu. She has earned more than 70 medals, including eight powerlifting medals, from almost two decades of competing in sports.
“My parents supported my interest in sport but didn’t need to motivate me. I loved it from the start because I was good at it. I worked hard at it and my efforts brought me some level of success.”
Sally has been a community advocate for more than 20 years. “I began my advocacy in earnest during the para transpo strike in 2001. A group of riders banded together in solidarity with the drivers. We all blocked traffic at a major intersection downtown for 15 minutes. We not only got the attention of the public, but also city counsellors. The labour dispute was solved soon after. I’ve been involved in para transit issues ever since. We now have a smaller group of Para Transpo users advocating for overall parity in the transit system.”
In addition to advocating for better transportation for people who use adaptive transit, Sally has used the public speaking training she received as a Paralympic powerlifter to advocate for increasing the Ontario Disability Supports Program (ODSP) and promote awareness of the challenges of living on social assistance.
Sally is also an artist. Sally started painting in 2012 as therapy, while living in long term care for five months recovering from a serious sepsis infection. The illness nearly killed her and led to her losing her first job as a Developmental Services Worker.
For Sally, art has been her salvation. “I fell in love with creating art in various ways. Most of my creations express what I am going through at the time. It is my happy place.”
Like those of us with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, Sally has experienced more health challenges as she has gotten older. When she realized she could no longer manage her personal care (about the same time she was released from long term care) she started receiving attendant care twice a day to help her get dressed, transfer to her wheelchair, and assist with cooking and housework.
Sally has been involved with Hydrocephalus Canada (HC), formerly Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association of Ontario, since moving to Ottawa. In addition to making connections, Sally has made many friends in the community. She participates in the Ottawa Tasters Club, online adult support networks and was a model for HC staff member and artist, Steve Kean’s “Spina Bifida: Front to Back” photography series.
Sally offers the following advice for anyone with spina bifida and/or hydrocephalus: “Listen to your body. Keep an open mind. Nothing is impossible. Dare to dream.”