Interview of Joanne MacDonald

Joanne MacDonald
August, 2006

Bio: Joanne was born in St. John's in 1952 and grew up in St. Mary's, NL. She has travelled around the world to compete in sporting events and competitions and held numerous provincial, national and international records during her sporting career.  Joanne was named "Athlete of the Decade" for the 1970's by the Newfoundland and Labrador Amateur Sports Federation. She also received the Vanier award in 1979 (one of five outstanding Canadians); and was Provincial Athlete of the year in 1976, Provincial Female Athlete of the year in 1978, and St. John's Female Athlete of the year in 1976 and 1978. In 1986, Joanne retired from playing sports due to an injury.  However, she continued to receive recognition and awards for her involvement in the disability community and sports.  In 1993, she was inducted into the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame and received the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2004. Joanne continues to be an activist within her community. She lists her pet peeve as the lack of access for persons who have disabilities. 

Sports happened at a time of my life when I needed something to pull me in. I was really struggling and not sure where I was headed in life.  Sports became an opportunity just to try something totally new. Growing up there wasn’t much opportunity to be involved with sports.  Organized sports at the school level didn’t exist and when it did come on stream having a disability wasn’t the right formula for becoming involved.  There was far too much concern that I might get hurt rather than just seeing what could or couldn’t be!  The perception being that I was already ‘hurt’ and exposing me, and people with disabilities in general, to opportunities where they could hurt themselves was not an option.  So I was discouraged from competing in school. 

1972 would have been my first involvement with wheelchair sports and my first national competition was in 1973.  Using a wheelchair to compete in sports such as track and basketball was a very new concept in the early 70’s.  The wheelchairs’ purpose up to that point had typically been for medical or of a rehabilitative nature and not for racing around a track or colliding with other chairs on a basketball court.  For me and indeed many other athletes it was a fabulous experience to be able to compete in sports without having to drag around crutches, canes, or braces.  It was a totally new experience and for those of us athletically inclined; it proved to a very rewarding experience.

I have some wonderful memories from my years of competing and was fortunate to travel to countries which I may never have seen.  As I look back over my sports career one of my fondest memories was from my first international competition, Pan American Games Mexico City in 1975.  Being there on the podium with the Canadian anthem being played because you had just won a gold medal is simply indescribable and will always stand out for me. My first international competition, first medal and anthem playing for something I had done!

Sports had a huge influence on my life and without it I suspect I would be a very different person today.  I was a fairly shy person growing up and certainly would never be described as extroverted.  People around me at the time would likely say I was a very difficult young woman, at times, and looking back I would have to agree.  With the introduction of sports everything changed for me and it forced me to change as a person.  My confidence level increased and I felt a desire and a drive that hadn’t previously existed.  It seemed I had found something I truly enjoyed and was committed to experiencing to the fullest extent possible.  Success seemed to come fairly quickly and with that came the requests for media interviews and with each competition, the media requests amplified.  I also started receiving requests to speak at service clubs, school functions and various community events.  I will always remember my very first speaking engagement.  I was invited to be the guest speaker at a high school athletic awards banquet.  Oh I was so nervous.  I had my speech prepared, 8 pages hand written, single spaced! When I got up to speak the paper was literally shaking in my hands. From the moment I started my speech to its’ conclusion I never looked up once at the young people assembled.   Speaking in public became a little easier with time but looking back at where I was three or four years previous it was difficult to believe that here I was an athlete, competing at the national and international level, doing media interviews and doing speeches.   

During my sporting years I was also fairly active within the disability community. Issues such as employment, transportation, attitudinal barriers and accessibility were of particular interest to me with accessibility being one of my major pet peeves.  Accessibility to public buildings was legislated in this province in 1982 and when it was passed into law there was a collective sigh of relief within the community that our work was done.  This new law would create access in our communities and we would sit back and watch it happen.  Well before too long we realized that legislation can only be effective when implemented. Unfortunately it was only being implemented sporadically and so it was necessary for our work to continue and it continues still today. 

I remember at one point in the mid 80’s when frustration reached it’s boiling point and it was suggested that maybe there should be a complaint lodged with the police about this law being broken! We thought this might spur the powers to be to implement this legislation. It was more of a way to see how and if the complaint would be acted upon.    So of I went to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary to make a formal complaint.  I informed them about the legislation and that there was a new public building just opened that was not adhering to the legislation.  Gave them all necessary details and was referred to a couple of different officers.  Well, of course, they didn’t have a clue what to do with me.  I knew, going in, they didn’t have the mandate to enforce that legislation because this was not a criminal offense.  I was trying to push some buttons, get people thinking and hoping they would make inform the Department of Justice about the complaint. 

Up until 1986 my work had been in the private sector and with community organizations.  In that year I went to work with the federal government, with the Department of Secretary of State. It was a department focused on assisting minority groups such as persons with disabilities, visible minorities, aboriginal people and women.  In my role, as a Social Development Officer, I worked with the disability community groups who were interested in accessing funding from our Department to address issues of human rights, integration, employment, legislative changes, lobbying governments, and so much more. While with the Department I worked with a core group of women with disabilities towards the establishment of an organization called Women for Change.

On one hand I think it was important for women with disabilities to organize and to identify issues specific to them as women.  On the other hand I found it sad and very disappointing that women with disabilities were not part and parcel of the women’s community.  Unfortunately women with disabilities were not seen to be women but as ‘people’ with disabilities.  Accessibility to women centres, transition houses, community events/activities did not exist.  Our concerns, issues and needs were to be addressed by the disability consumer movement for that is where we belonged!  As women, who happen to have disabilities, we did not have a place in the women’s movement and no welcome mats existed for us.

Change has occurred over the years and in parts of the province women’s centres transition houses and community events have some level of access.  But we are not there yet. Full inclusion and accessibility to all women with disabilities to events, activities, services, programs within the women’s community still does not exist.  Why are we still facing accessibility barriers? Why are women with disabilities excluded? Are our issues so different or unimportant?  What will it take to create change?

Men and women with disabilities continue to experience barriers, limiting their ability to participate in the social and economic fabric of our communities.  So much has been accomplished yet so much remains to be done and so many attitudes need to be changed.