By the time she wheeled her hand-propelled bicycle in front of the University Centre Aug. 10, U of G graduate Stephanie McClellan had racked up 4,952 kilometres on a marathon journey to promote awareness of disability issues. She had set off from Vancouver May 30 on her trip to Ottawa aboard her three-wheeled bicycle sporting its jaunty Canadian flag.
"Three years ago, it was a dream," she said, referring to the tour she dubbed "On Wings Like Eagles" after her favourite Bible verse.
McClellan's goal for the trip was not to raise funds but to increase awareness of issues affecting people with disabilities and how to help them contribute fully to their communities. Accompanied by a six-person support team - including U of G graduates Sharon Young and Sara Leggett - she led evening workshops on disability issues in towns and cities along the route, mostly in churches.
A native of Fonthill, McClellan enrolled at U of G in 1991 planning to pursue an education degree and teach physical education to the deaf. Following the first year of her BA program, she developed sudden-onset rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, causing pain and inflammation in her joints.
"Within a week of my exams, I couldn't move," she says, recalling being unable to lift her head from her pillow.
She went from being an independent and able-bodied athlete involved in volleyball, basketball, soccer and swimming to needing assistance in every aspect of daily life. Following months of undiagnosed pain and immobilization, she entered Chedoke-McMaster Hospital's Rheumatic Disease Unit, where she spent five months learning all over again how to dress herself, tie her shoes and walk.
Returning to Guelph, McClellan got involved in a variety of activities through the Centre for Students with Disabilities. She became a peer helper, organized a sports program for students and community members with disabilities, helped run the Gryphon summer activity camp, served as a consultant on accessibility of campus facilities and helped establish U of G's REC (Recreational Equity on Campus) Club. In 1995, she earned the University's R.P. Gilmor Award for contributions to the quality of campus life.
While at Guelph, McClellan had taken up wheelchair sports, including playing basketball in international tournaments for two years with the Twin City Spinners in Kitchener. She currently belongs to the Division 2 Provincial Women's Team in British Columbia, where she is a candidate for ordained ministry in the United Church of Canada. She hopes to complete her studies at the University of British Columbia's Regent College by 2001.
"My ultimate goal is hospital chaplaincy," she says. "I've been on the other side of the bed. I've found out that hospitals are not doom-and-gloom places but places where life is celebrated."
Able to walk only short distances around her apartment, she uses a wheelchair regularly, but never uses the word "confinement." Patting the arm of her wheelchair, she said: "I can do a lot more in a day if I use my wheels. They're my freedom."
Asked about her inspiration for the journey, she pointed to the examples set by cross-country marathoners Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. Hansen, in fact, has an office adjoining UBC's Disability Resource Centre and gave McClellan a pep talk before she embarked on her trek last spring. "I see how much the world was changed because of Terry Fox and Rick Hansen," she says, adding that one of the high points of her tour was a stop in Thunder Bay to view the Terry Fox Monument. "That's just amazing and inspiring."
The nadir occurred during a stretch in Alberta between Bow Island and Medicine Hat, when strong head-winds prevented her from meeting that day's goal. Still feeling disheartened the next morning, she eventually encountered a man by the roadside who waved and cheered her on. She didn't realize until later that day that the lone supporter had passed a package to her entourage. It turned out he was the coach of a paralympic athlete who had won a silver medal in alpine skiing. In the package was the medal, on loan for the rest of McClellan's trip. "He had given me the silver medal and said some days can be discouraging but to keep on going," she said.
Cost of the trip was covered by several sponsors, notably the Canadian Foundation for the Physically Disabled and UBC's St. Andrew's Hall.