by Deborah Melman-Clement
When Emily Hayter was an undergrad, one of her assignments was to make her way around the Queen’s campus as if she were in a wheelchair so that she could experience the school from a disabled student’s perspective. “It was a real eye opener,” she recalls.
These days, life in a wheelchair is no longer an experiment for Emily. In the summer of 2006, after completing the first year toward her Master’s degree in French, she injured herself in a diving accident and has been without the use of her arms and legs ever since.
Emily spent the 2005-2006 school year recovering at Kingston’s St. Mary’s of the Lake hospital. “One of the nicest surprises was how incredibly supportive the school was,” she recalls. In addition to a steady stream of friends, Emily’s visitors included several professors who dropped by the hospital regularly and brought her reading materials to help her pass the time.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about that year was that Emily was able to take part in a conference while she was in rehab.
“I was completely incapable of using a computer,” she recalls. “I had no arm movement whatsoever.” With a little help from her friends -- who typed while she dictated – Emily attended the conference in Toronto, where she presented a paper on the symbolism of the hand in the work of two 20th-century Quebecois authors.
The year in rehab allowed Emily to recover the use of both biceps. Although she remains in a wheelchair and she still has no hand function, she does have functional use of her hands. “It allows for a lot more independence,” she says.
It also allowed her to return to school in the fall of 2006. She credits the university with making it possible. “Everyone was very helpful,” she says. “My staff advisor, Annette Hayward, was so supportive. She came to me so that I didn’t have to travel. She picked up books from the library for me and dropped them off again.” The school even helped her secure a new computer system, complete with voice recognition software, to help her be more productive.
Just like her undergraduate experiment, Emily’s accident has been an eye opener. “It forced me to look at the path I was on,” she explains. “After the accident, I had to ask myself if this was what I really wanted to do, because it’s such an effort. I realized that the answer was yes. And it was partly because there was so much support here.”
Thanks in part to that support, Emily was able to finish her thesis – which she typed with two fingers—and graduate in October of 2008. “I’m proud because I did what I had planned to do before the accident,” she says. “It was never ‘well, I didn’t get it 100% right, but that’s OK because of my condition.’ I really did what I wanted to do. And I’m not sure I could have done that anywhere but at Queen’s.”