As part of our ongoing look at the city's multi-faceted English-speaking community, one of our writers interviewed Laval-born Christine Stepien, who has lived her entire life in a wheelchair.

Q: First of all, Christine, and since many of us don't know, what exactly is cerebral palsy?

A: In my case, some brain damage occurred during pregnancy, and I was born prematurely. As a result, I'm physically challenged. I'm 55 years old and I have never walked. My body is very limited. I need help getting up, getting dressed, and going to the bathroom. It primarily affects motor skills.

Q: What was it like growing up in Laval?

A: Very lonely! I was ostracized by other children. My mom would take me out for walks in my wheelchair. People would stare and some were afraid that I might be contagious. Maybe they were too afraid to ask. I know some people thought there was something wrong with me mentally, as well.

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: There was no place in Laval that could accommodate me when I was ready for school. It was either too many stairs or no one available to take me to the bathroom. I had to commute to the Mackay Centre School in Montreal.

Q: Did you graduate from the Mackay Centre?

A: No, I had to leave before then. There were complications when I was growing. My feet were crooked and I had to have several operations, which meant a long hospital stay. Then infection set in, so we spent time looking after that. That was the end of my formal education!

Q: But you read and write very well, don't you?

A: Yes, I taught myself as much as I could, through reading and watching the news. I'm very well informed and I go out as much as I can to socialize and learn about the world.

Q: Tell us about growing up in Laval.

A: Our neighbours have always been great. My childhood friend was Pam. She lived next door and she looked past my chair. We went everywhere together. I was 15 when her family moved away. Then a large family moved in, and they were all friendly and would come to visit. I didn't get out much, so I relied on people coming to visit.

Q: Have you ever spoken French?

A: Not really. I speak English and Polish, which is my parents' mother tongue. We lost my father over a decade ago. My mother is a wonderful lady in her late 80s, full of spunk and humour. Unfortunately, she now has Alzheimers and needs around-the-clock care.

Q: Why did you leave Laval, Christine?

A: When I was 47, I realized that taking care of me was becoming too much for Mom. Dad had passed on and my mother was working at the Miriam Home. Plus I wanted to be on my own, doesn't everyone? Sometimes I dream about what my life would have been if I could have walked. I was going to be a nurse and marry a lawyer and have a family, wouldn't that have been great?

Anyway, there was nowhere in Laval for people my age with my needs. A Laval social worker helped me find a place in Lachine, in an assisted-living residence near two wonderful friends, Belva and Richard, who have always thought of me as family. I try hard to be independent, but of course I have to rely on others a lot.

Q: You've had some great adventures, I hear?

A: Yes! I've gone sailing, I got to see Disneyworld, and I go home once a week to visit Mom. I go out to dinner and shopping on a regular basis. With the help of another friend, I've written a book and we're looking for a publisher. It's called "The Broken Bridge."

Q: What advice might you have for other people living in a wheelchair, Christine?

A: My motto is "always be happy." I have a good sense of humour and I tend to look on the bright side. I never let myself get down for too long. There are people worse off in the world than me, right? I believe in the power of being positive. And I'm so grateful for the love of friends.

About the Author
Lorrie Beauchamp is a Montreal-based journalist, freelance writer and business owner. She is a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation, former student of and editor for the Thomas More Institute newsletter, and co-founder of The Writers’ Bloc, a literary group celebrating English writers in a city where everyone, including the majority, is a minority.