National hall of fame recognizes hand cycling Yukoner

Ramesh Ferris doesn't return to his childhood home in Riverdale to track any changes, or to shoot the breeze with his neighbours, who are also his godparents. Instead, he comes to 41 Firth Rd. to reflect on an event.

Ramesh Ferris doesn’t return to his childhood home in Riverdale to track any changes, or to shoot the breeze with his neighbours, who are also his godparents.

Instead, he comes to 41 Firth Rd. to reflect on an event he only remembers through photographs: his first time walking at three-and-a-half years old, aided by two leg braces and two crutches.

“It’s an emotional reminder of my obstacles that I’ve overcome,” the 33-year-old program supervisor at the Northern Cultural Expressions Society said.

He tells his story sitting on a paved curb, pausing when helicopters fly overhead. The view here, across the street from his childhood bedroom window, contrasts sharply with what he saw from another street over a decade ago.

It was 2002. Ferris was sitting on a dirty curb in India, drinking a Fanta. He noticed a person crawling on the ground.

“This was not a child, this was a person in their 20s, an adult,” Ferris remembers. Confused, he asked his translator to explain this strange sight to him.

His translator’s answer left him “disgusted and appalled,” Ferris said. The man was crawling because he could not walk. He was paralyzed as a result of polio, a disease a couple drops of a vaccine can prevent.

But that’s not the only reason why this man’s situation disturbed Ferris. In him, Ferris, in India to visit his birth mother, saw a picture of how his life could have been. When Ferris was six months old, he contracted polio. It left both his legs paralyzed.

It could have left him with few opportunities. But his birth mother brought him to a Canadian Families for Children orphanage in Coimbatore. He stayed there until his parents adopted him and brought him to Canada when he was two-and-a-half. Ferris was the first international adoption in the territory. His family moved from London, Ont. to Yukon in 1981. His father, an Anglican bishop, was assigned to the territory. Ferris arrived the next year. At age three, he had corrective surgeries on his legs. (Two other surgeries would follow as he grew up.) A few months later, he took his first steps down the driveway.

He hasn’t stopped since. This November, his journey will take him to the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame in Toronto. The hall recognizes people who have made significant contributions to improve the lives of people with physical disabilities in areas of sports, education, health or housing.

Past inductees include Lieutenant Governor of Ontario David Onley, himself a polio survivor, and a man Ferris considers a personal friend and inspiration, Rick Hansen. Ferris is being inducted in the achiever category to recognize his work to raise awareness and funds for polio education and eradication. He hand-cycled across Canada in 2008 to raise money and awareness for polio. His trip generated over $300,000 to fight the disease. Since then, he’s continued to meet with heads of state and celebrities, among them fellow polio survivor Neil Young, to promote polio awareness. He’s travelled to India several times since his first trip, even administering the vaccine himself at times.

“It was very surreal,” he said, of his reaction to learning he’d been unanimously selected to join the hall this year. He hadn’t known he’d been nominated, or was even aware of the hall, said Ferris. He’s overwhelmed. “I just sort of live my life,” he said.

But it is exciting to know a “small-town boy from North of 60” is making a difference across the world, said Ferris.

Polio is worth fighting, said Ferris. The virus mainly affects children under five; one in 200 children affected will become paralyzed as a result of the disease. Of those paralyzed, five to 10 per cent will die because of breathing problems. Ferris now only needs one brace and one crutch to walk – although he uses two crutches during the winter. He had pneumonia nine times before he was 11; he still has trouble breathing today.

Polio can’t be cured, but it can be prevented. Last year, there were 223 reported cases, according to the World Health Organization. That’s down from 350,000 cases in 1988. But the disease remains pandemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. India has gone almost three years without a reported case, said Ferris. If the disease remains, within 10 years, more than 200,000 new cases could be seen each year.

Facts like this keep Ferris motivated to help fight the disease.

It wasn’t always the case. As a child, he was pretty “guarded,” he said. He was embarrassed by his body. Classmates would call him “cripple,” kick his crutches out from under him, one even ran over his legs with a bicycle. Ferris would not wear shorts because they wouldn’t cover his legs. He doesn’t remember having any classmates who had trouble walking; he didn’t have friends who had physical disabilities until he was older, although he’d grown up around people with physical disabilities. His siblings are all adopted; one of his sisters is completely blind.

But when he travelled to India, he realized how much he had to be thankful for, and is now happy to use his experiences to teach others. Despite its name, he thinks of the disability hall of fame as a hall of ability that recognizes people who have overcome their own hardships to help others.

Canada has committed $250 million over the next five years to help eradicate polio. But living with the effects of the disease can still be hard here. Ferris almost didn’t get to enter the country. A few weeks before he was set to arrive, his parents learned the government wasn’t going to let him come. Ferris’s disability would be too big of a burden on the health-care system, they were told. His parents fought back. The local CBC picked up the story. Ferris came on a ministerial permit by then-minister of Immigration, Lloyd Axworthy.

Walking with crutches on Whitehorse’s icy streets was tough. It took him nearly an hour to walk from his house to the fire hydrant in front of 30 Firth Rd. When he fell, his parents didn’t pick him up, he said. “They were there to support me as I picked myself up and tried it again.”

The Yukon still has a way to go in becoming accessible, said Ferris. The wooden stairs in Dawson City may look nice, but he’s tripped over them several times, he said. Accessible parking spaces are great, but they’re not as effective when they’re placed in front of curbs. And while he may be known for hand cycling, he had no access to adaptive sports, like wheelchair basketball, growing up. Those sports should be offered in schools to all students – regardless if they have a disability or not, he said.

“I’m considered disabled because I can’t do the conventional sports. But aren’t (students without disabilities) considered disabled because they can’t hand cycle or play wheelchair basketball?” he asked.

He went to college in Ontario, but he’s a proud Yukoner, and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. He has “no intention of leaving,” said Ferris. “The answer isn’t to run away from your problems.”

Contact Meagan Gillmore at

mgillmore@yukon-news.com

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