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Honouring the Memory of Barb Turnbull – A Champion for Accessibility for People with Disabilities

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update United for a Barrier-Free Ontario for All People with Disabilities May 13, 2015

SUMMARY

We today honour the memory of Toronto journalist, and disability accessibility advocate extraordinaire, Barb Turnbull. She died far too young, at the age of 50, on Sunday May 10, 2015. She exemplified how Ontario’s grass roots accessibility movement wages its tenacious campaign to tear down accessibility barriers through the incredible diverse contributions of individuals across Ontario who in their own ways, lend their names, their efforts and their energy to this cause.

In this Update, we share just a sampling of Barb Turnbull’s life and contributions to our cause. As just one example, her September 2013 memoire, entitled Lessons from My 30 Years of Quadriplegia, excerpted at greater length below, so effectively summed up our progress to date:

“That is also why we need a strong and effective Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, with mandatory standards that go far beyond current building codes and are effectively enforced. What the Ontario Legislature passed in 2005 was promising. It required the Ontario government to lead the province to full accessibility within 20 years, by 2025. That was fully achievable if the government acted promptly and effectively, and if it kept all its promises about this legislation.

Unfortunately, the Ontario Government in recent years has repeatedly dropped the ball. It makes great speeches about why accessibility is good for business and for our economy, and about its plans to be a world leader in the area, but there is no bold action. Accessibility standards passed to date, while helpful, don’t go anywhere near far enough. Even if they were strictly obeyed, they won’t ensure full accessibility by 2025. Ontario has been dragging its feet about making new standards and about keeping its promise to effectively enforce the accessibility law.”

And as our response, the May 13, 2015 letter to the editor in the Toronto Star from AODA Alliance chair David Lepofsky concluded:

“Far too soon, we’ve lost an extraordinary powerhouse in our accessibility campaign. We honour her legacy by ensuring that all hear and act upon her words about the accessibility cause. We honour her life if every newsroom and all employers considering a job applicant with a disability remember how Barb’s quadriplegia faded into the background and didn’t impede her superb, diverse reportage.

Barb’s words and voice are with us, still encouraging, inspiring and helping, as we redouble our efforts on our goal of a fully accessible Ontario by 2025.”

We again express our eternal gratitude for Barb Turnbull’s many contributions to our cause, and for all others across Ontario who have helped our accessibility campaign locally, or at the provincial level, in the public’s view or quietly behind the scenes.

Below you will find:

* the letter to the editor about Barb Turnbull in the May 13, 2015 Toronto Star, by AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky

* an excerpt from the October 10, 2013 AODA Alliance Update about Barb Turnbull, including pages from her 2013 memoir that recount her invaluable advocacy efforts on accessibility for people with disabilities.

* the Editorial about Barb Turnbull in the May 12, 2015 Toronto Star, and

* the longer article about Barb Turnbull’s life in the May 11, 2015 Toronto Star.

The Ontario Government only has 9 years, 8 months and 18 days left to lead Ontario to become fully accessible to 1.8 million Ontarians with disabilities by 2025, as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requires.

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MORE DETAILS

1. Toronto Star On-line May 13, 2015

Originally posted at: http://newspapers.web.ca/news/nr/en/TOST201505130065 Lettters to the Editor
Re: Barb Turnbull’s inspiring spirit lives on

I, like so many, am deeply saddened by Barb Turnbull’s passing. Charming, warm and down-to-earth, she’d wring every drop she could from each day. Over time, the fact that armed robbers’ bullets instantly and cruelly turned an aspiring teenager into a quadriplegic remained far more in the minds of others than in her own. She exemplified how disability can, does, and will happen to any of us, indeed all of us, if we live long enough. Hers came much earlier in life than most.

She exemplified how to blast through barrier after barrier, landing a great job as a Toronto Star reporter, thriving long before adaptive technology made this job more accessible for a person with her disability.

Barb’s passionate dedication to the cause of making Ontario fully accessible to people with disabilities brought us together. A true hero in our cause, she profoundly enriched our movement by her impressive example, by her superb reportage on accessibility issues (not her main beat) and by her personally combating unfair barriers she faced. She shouldered the ordeal of waging a landmark human rights case. She and four others sued Famous Players Theaters for not providing more accessible theaters. Although she won the case, Famous Players unfairly opted to close inaccessible theatres rather than fix them.

Barb faced down ugly backlash from a vocal few who unfairly scapegoated her and her disability advocacy for the theatres’ closing. That didn’t stop Barb. She courageously made public nasty messages she received, and pressed the accessibility cause even harder.

Barb was driven by an undying optimistic spirit, no matter the odds, captured magnificently in her 2013 memoir, Lessons from My 30 Years of Quadriplegia: “My experience has taught me that for every truly ignorant individual I have come across, there are many others open to learning, or with the beautiful spirit of that photographer, a man who extended such kindness to me when I needed it so badly. The day I stop believing in the greater good of humanity will be the day I give up.”

We lost Barb on May 10, 2015, the 10th anniversary of the Ontario Legislature’s unanimously passing the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. That law requires the Ontario government to lead Ontario to full accessibility by 2025.

Barb’s 2013 memoir captured the current spirit of Ontario’s grassroots accessibility movement, commending the government for passing that law, but blasting it for dropping the ball and “dragging its feet” since then, not matching praiseworthy speeches with bold implementation and enforcement of accessibility.

Far too soon, we’ve lost an extraordinary powerhouse in our accessibility campaign. We honour her legacy by ensuring that all hear and act upon her words about the accessibility cause. We honour her life if every newsroom and all employers considering a job applicant with a disability remember how Barb’s quadriplegia faded into the background and didn’t impede her superb, diverse reportage.

Barb’s words and voice are with us, still encouraging, inspiring and helping, as we redouble our efforts on our goal of a fully accessible Ontario by 2025.

David Lepofsky, Chair, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance

2. From the October 10, 2013 AODA Alliance Update

1. Barb Turnbull Tells Her Powerful Story about Fighting for Accessibility

Our unstoppable, non-partisan campaign to make Ontario fully accessible for over 1.7 million people with disabilities is so energized and tenacious because so many wonderful and dedicated people across this province lend their support in their own way, and at the time and place that best suits them. We are indebted to them all.

One of the many heroes in this effort is Toronto’s Barb Turnbull. She works at the Toronto Star as a journalist. In so many great ways, she has used her experience and her talents to press for greater accessibility.

In her most recent contribution, she has written a new book entitled: “What I Know: Lessons from My 30 Years of Quadriplegia.” Confronting and tackling accessibility barriers is one of the important lessons about which she wrote.

On September 28, 2013, the Toronto Star included a compelling excerpt from Barb Turnbull’s new e-book, which focuses on some of her invaluable efforts on the accessibility front. We set out below an excerpt from her book that the Toronto Star included in its September 28, 2013 edition.

To Barb Turnbull, and to all others who help with our cause, we extend a huge thank you. Stay tuned over the next days and weeks, as we offer ideas on how each of you can help us press forward in our accessibility campaign.

Text of the Toronto Star’s September 28, 2013 Article on Barb Turnbull’s New Book

The Toronto Star September 28, 2013
Insight

Barbara and Goliath; It was the 1990s and Famous Players was turning away people in wheelchairs. Until this indomitable movie fan came along, that is.

Star reporter Barbara Turnbull has been an outspoken advocate for accessibility.

PHOTO: “If you ever wonder why we people with disabilities demand equal access, it’s because too often, still, we have to demand access,” says Barbara Turnbull, shown as she receives an honorary degree from York University. PHOTO: Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

I filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission 20 years ago against Famous Players Theatres. In 1993, the company ran 10 theatres in Toronto (before amalgamation). Only the Cumberland was advertised as accessible.

In 1994, Viacom Inc. purchased Famous Players and invested $500 million dollars in building 43 new theatres across Canada over four years, from 1997 to 2001. But before those new accessible venues were built, there were many small movie houses with stairs. The film distribution business was very different in the early ’90s. Most movies played in either a Famous Players or a Cineplex Odeon theatre; rarely did one run in both. As an avid filmgoer, I had my eye on the scene.

Because I lived above a Cineplex Odeon cinema – it was a strong consideration in my condo purchase – the lack of access at Famous Players bothered me, but I gave them points for at least running one accessible venue.

However, the situation meant that at any given time, about half the films showing were inaccessible to me, unless I drove to the suburbs, where most theatres were newer and built accessible. I figured that if there was one I really wanted to see on the big screen, I would make the effort.

That’s what happened in 1993 when I went to a Friday matinee at what I thought was the only accessible cinema run by Famous Players in Toronto.

I requested and was sold a ticket to M. Butterfly. Then the employee gave me an odd look, so I asked him which direction to go in.

“Can you get out of that thing?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “I can’t get out of this thing.” “Then you can’t go,” he said. “It’s up the escalator.” He told me that only one of the four screens was accessible. Instead of seeing an art film by David Cronenberg, my only option was Rudy, a football flick.

“But you advertise this theatre as accessible,” I said. “That’s head office,” another employee said with a casual air. “You’d have to contact them about that.”

At the time, a recent Human Rights case over a lack of accessible parking in a strip mall had concluded that any business open to the public must be accessible to all members of the public. I followed up with Famous Players, noting that it was in violation of the Human Rights Code. The company’s mailed response to me contained this line: “The recent Human Rights decision was not clear in its implication for theatre owners.”

‘Court of public opinion’

What else could I do but make it crystal clear? In response to my complaint, the company renovated the Cumberland Cinema but resisted changing others. Over the next eight years, four other people with disabilities launched complaints against Famous Players, all with similar (or worse) experiences. During the public hearing, Famous Players refused to provide any financial data, arguing that its ability to pay for the renovations was not an issue. However, a spokesperson for the company was quoted in the media as saying that the cost of the renovations could force two theatres to close.

“If these expenses were a genuine issue causing undue hardship to Famous Players Theatres, the Board of Inquiry could have addressed the matter,” Chief Commissioner Keith Norton said in his decision. “Instead, the corporation attempted to try its case in the court of public opinion and in doing so, unfairly pitted the legitimate desire of those who want to protect heritage buildings against the rights of persons with disabilities.”

When the decision was released, on Sept. 11, 2001, we won. A story about the ruling was the only article in the Star the next day unrelated to the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. Understandably, the decision was largely ignored by the media. What’s important to note is that over those eight years the landscape had significantly changed in the city. Famous Players had built multiplexes that were accessible and closed several of the smaller, inaccessible venues.

However, what was important to me was access to the annual Toronto International Film Festival, which I attended regularly. The festival was then spread over a few cinemas, most notably the Uptown, one of the most revered movie houses in the city. Along with the Art Deco Eglinton, they were Famous Players’ signature theatres. Every year there were films I wanted to see at the festival but couldn’t, because they were scheduled at the Uptown. If at any point during those eight years the company had renovated the Uptown, I might have dropped my complaint. I never expected every single old cinema to be fully accessible, but I expected the same choices as those available to the able-bodied population.

As for the film festival, CEO Piers Handling said Uptown’s inaccessibility wasn’t their issue, because they simply rented the venue. Using all accessible cinemas wasn’t possible because “our overall philosophy for the 20 years of the Festival has been to create a ‘Festival village’ atmosphere at Bloor-Yonge-Bay,” he wrote to me in a 1995 response to my suggestion the festival’s borders be broadened to be fully accessible.

However, the law does state that every public business must be accessible and so, in losing the complaint, Famous Players was given three months to come up with a plan to make all of its facilities fully compliant with the law. After three months, the company announced it was closing inaccessible venues rather than renovate them. Renovating the Uptown would cost $1 million, the company claimed, a figure parroted by reporters unaware that three-quarters of that quote was to gut and redo the interior.

The reaction from the public was swift and visceral. Though there were five complainants, we were “Turnbull et al. versus Famous Players.” As a Star reporter, I was also the most public and easy to reach, so I became the target for able-bodied people who were enraged they were losing theatres they loved.

People phoned and emailed the Star. Some said I should “resign in disgrace,” that I had “set the disability movement back 10 years,” that I was “denying future generations the historical significance of these theatres.”

One Tom K. wrote to me: “I can’t believe how the handicapped . . . are calling the shots for the majority. I’m tired of bending over backwards for these people, just to have them demand more. Now we’re losing our historical institutions because of unreasonable demands. You are not the majority, so please go back to being the minority and save me my tax dollars and quit being a burden on society.”

Piers Handling was quoted in a Star article: “There are about 1,800 seats in the three Uptown (theatres) we use. It has been an integral part of the festival mix for about 15 years. And a closing of this kind will obviously leave a huge hole in our festival mix – it’s a major issue.”

Andy Barrie, on CBC’s Metro Morning, earned a permanent place in my heart for the kind way he reported our side. All other debates that I heard on radio shows sounded negatively skewed to me, the majority of callers angry. “I go to the movies all the time and I never see people in wheelchairs anyway,” is a memorable line from one indignant citizen.

Two years later, when the Uptown was being demolished, a wall collapsed, killing one and injuring 17. An email came to me with one line: “I hope you’re happy.”

Let’s be clear: the company made business decisions and used disabled people as scapegoats. And they overwhelmingly won the PR battle in doing so. Those theatres would have closed eventually anyway, but I’m still known by many as “the one who shut down the Uptown.”

I was pretty fragile for a spell. But the Human Rights Commission ruling was an important legal decision and I stand by it. The case is examined in high school law classes across the country, with a page devoted to it in the textbook currently in use.

Yet sometimes I hesitate before speaking out. I get the feeling that people want to throw their arms up and walk away. Maybe they’re thinking “Is this really such a big deal? Can’t you just be OK with how it is?”

Sometimes I feel too demanding, and that we can do more harm by making a fuss. It’s like being a whistleblower – you make as many enemies, maybe even more enemies, than you do friends. But should I lower my expectations because others won’t raise their standards?

If you ever wonder why we people with disabilities demand equal access, it’s because too often, still, we have to demand access –
whether it’s a workplace party, a new park or an entrance to a public business run by a wealthy corporation.

No bold action yet

That is also why we need a strong and effective Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, with mandatory standards that go far beyond current building codes and are effectively enforced. What the Ontario Legislature passed in 2005 was promising. It required the Ontario government to lead the province to full accessibility within 20 years, by 2025. That was fully achievable if the government acted promptly and effectively, and if it kept all its promises about this legislation.

Unfortunately, the Ontario Government in recent years has repeatedly dropped the ball. It makes great speeches about why accessibility is good for business and for our economy, and about its plans to be a world leader in the area, but there is no bold action. Accessibility standards passed to date, while helpful, don’t go anywhere near far enough. Even if they were strictly obeyed, they won’t ensure full accessibility by 2025. Ontario has been dragging its feet about making new standards and about keeping its promise to effectively enforce the accessibility law.

There will always be people who just don’t get it. Some can be educated and, even though that process can be tiresome, the end result is usually worth it. The fact remains that there are some people who don’t think we belong at gatherings for able-bodied people, because we are inconvenient. “If there’s a barrier, just stay away,” is the message.

My experience has taught me that for every truly ignorant individual I have come across, there are many others open to learning, or with the beautiful spirit of that photographer, a man who extended such kindness to me when I needed it so badly. The day I stop believing in the greater good of humanity will be the day I give up.

Until that comes – I’ll carry on.

get the full read

What I Know: Lessons From My 30 Years of Quadriplegia is available through the weekly ebook program Star Dispatches. Simply go to stardispatches.com and subscribe for $1/week. Single copies of What I Know are available for $2.99 at starstore.ca and itunes.com/stardispatches.

Barbara Turnbull Toronto Star

*****

NOTE: For those who are interested, we understand that it might be easier to acquire the book for $2.99 by visiting http://starstore.ca/collections/star-dispatches-ereads/products/what-i-know

3. The Toronto Star May 12, 2015

Originally posted at http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2015/05/11/barbara-turnbull-set-an-inspiring-example-editorial.html Editorial An inspiring example for all

If all she had done was go to work and do her job, Barbara Turnbull would have been an inspiring example of courage in the face of enormous obstacles.

She reported for the Star for a quarter of a century, writing hundreds of articles on everything under the sun. She travelled to cover stories and tackled difficult assignments.

All that forced those who encountered her to focus on what she could do, not on what she could not do after the 1983 convenience store shooting that left her paralyzed below the neck and confined to a wheelchair. Simply by living as she did, she set an example for people living with disabilities, and for everyone else.

But Barb Turnbull, who died on Sunday at the age of 50, did a lot more than that. She lent her name, her story and her energy to raising money for research into spinal cord injuries. And she campaigned publicly, often in the face of misunderstanding and even hostility, in favour of equal access for all.

She first told her story in a 1997 autobiography, Looking in the Mirror, and channelled the funds from that into the Barbara Turnbull Foundation for Spinal Cord Research. She complained that Ontario does comparatively little to support research in this important area and set about to help remedy that.

Her foundation awards an annual prize of $50,000 to a top researcher in the field. And in a Star ebook published two years ago, Turnbull described how it has raised some $750,000 to support research being carried out by Dr. Charles Tator, the neurosurgeon who removed a bullet from her spinal cord.

She also campaigned for full access to movie theatres, and in 1993 lodged a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission over barriers in cinemas operated by Famous Players Theatres. That led to conflict: the commission ruled in her favour in 2001, but some moviegoers were upset when Famous Players closed two theatres rather than make them fully accessible.

Turnbull became the target of their anger. It deeply wounded her, but she refused to become bitter. “The day I stop believing in the greater good of humanity will be the day I give up,” she wrote in 2013. “Until that day comes, I will carry on.”

Carry on she did. She wrote passionately about the need for more organ and tissue donation. Last year, she had 66 bylines in the Star, a very respectable output. Her last article for the Star – a brightly written story about movies and overeating – appeared on March 8. Until her final illness, she did not let anything slow her down.

She leaves a legacy that will be long remembered.

4. The Toronto Star May 11, 2015

Originally posted at http://media-dis-n-dat.blogspot.ca/2015/05/obituary-toronto-star-reporter-barbara.html News

A life of unstoppable bravery; Left quadriplegic by a bullet, Star writer Barbara Turnbull didn’t let disability limit her

Bella, who was Barbara Turnbull’s service dog until last year, pushes a pad to open a door for the two of them. She initially wrote her stories using a stick manipulated by her mouth. Barbara Turnbull in late 1983, shortly after she was shot.
Retired editor Nick van Rijn admits that when he first saw Barbara Turnbull in the Star newsroom, he thought: “What is she doing here?”

Several years earlier, a teenage Turnbull had been shot in the neck during a robbery, which left her spinal cord damaged and rendered her a high-level quadriplegic.

“She wasted no time showing me what she was doing here,” van Rijn recalled Sunday, echoing the sentiments of many others at the Star.

Turnbull died Sunday afternoon from complications related to pneumonia. She was 50.

“It was really beautiful,” her sister Alison told the Star. “She went very peacefully with her family around her.”

Turnbull leaves behind her mother and father, four sisters, nieces and nephews and her extended family.

Despite “my accident” – as Turnbull called the 1983 shooting during a robbery in the Mississauga convenience store where she worked – she graduated with honours from Arizona State University’s journalism school as class valedictorian in 1990.

She was subsequently hired by the Star, where she became a champion of disability rights and organ donation over her incredible career at the newspaper.

Mary Deanne Shears, managing editor at the Star at time, hired her in the early ’90s.

“Little did I know then of her strength, her bravery, the depth of her independence, her writing talent and her vibrant personality. But the Star newsroom came to know all of that, and many of its journalists became her friend, as did I,” said Shears on Sunday. “She was smart and feisty and kind and determined to make every day and every assignment count. I shall miss her so much.”

A long list of influential people eventually befriended Turnbull after being astounded by her spirit.

Former Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry met her shortly after the shooting.

“I admired Barb so much. She was without a doubt the most courageous person I had ever known,” he said. “The thing about Barbara was there was never a note of sadness that I ever observed. She must have had terrible, sad moments, but she refused to dwell on that.”

Dr. Charles Tator, a neurosurgeon who removed the bullet pressing on Turnbull’s spinal cord, became a lifelong friend.

“She certainly was one of the bravest people that I have ever met, and in fact she in turn inspired so many people around her,” he said. “There were several instances when she reached out to recently injured people who sustained spinal cord injuries and tried to ease their burden.”

Tator called her efforts to raise money for research in the field “a significant contribution to Canadian society.”

Former Ontario lieutenant governor David Onley spoke with deep admiration for Turnbull, who advocated for many of the causes he does.

“The way she carried herself, if I can say that, and really rose above an incredibly difficult situation of being cut down in the prime of her life, and to lose, you know, basically all control of her body, and yet she continued on, not only to have a meaningful life and a life with a significant profession and a career, but also became one of the articulate spokespeople insofar as accessibility was concerned … in that whole time period of the late ’80s, early ’90s, was when awareness really first started to come about in our culture in terms of accessibility.”

Turnbull’s colleagues at the Star remembered a journalist who became an institution, tenaciously advocating for causes that she understood like few others.

“I covered that story the night she was shot,” recalled senior columnist Rosie DiManno. “In the years since, I’ve been in awe over what Barb accomplished as a journalist and how she lived her life. She was kind and generous and funny and without bitterness. She also had great hope for the promise of spinal cord injury research.”

Turnbull launched the Barbara Turnbull Foundation to generate support for Canadian research on spinal cord injuries. It focuses on co-operative approaches among institutions and provides an annual prize for the Canadian Institute of Health Research for the top grant application in the area of spinal cord injury.

Turnbull wrote her 1997 autobiography Looking in the Mirror largely to help raise funds and spread her optimism about the possibility of finding ways to regenerate damaged cells in the spinal cord. She was often invited to speak in front of large audiences about her advocacy.

Over the years, Turnbull’s foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for research. In 2012 she was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

“There are tragedies every day in the news, and there were tragedies every day then,” said broadcaster and close friend Dini Petty. “But the camera went to Barbara Turnbull and it didn’t leave. She became a phenomenon.”

Some described her as always on the go. Colleague and friend Joe Hall said he was astonished by how quickly Turnbull made people see her in the way she wanted to be seen.

“The miracle of Barb was you lost the chair,” said Hall. “A whirring, lumbering, 300-pound contraption – the legacy of a cowardly crime and catastrophic injury. Yet if you knew her, it disappeared. Gone, in the glow of a sublime spirit.”

“Barb was exceptional in the way she conducted her life,” said another former colleague, Leslie Scrivener. “She used positive language, the language of the able-bodied, so that she was not set apart. Because of that we didn’t set her apart. She walked to work. She had lunch with you. The relationship was collegial, not dependent.”

Early in her career, Turnbull used a specially designed stick that she manipulated with her mouth to work the keyboard. But voice recognition software and other technology eventually made it easier to do her job. She was writing for the Star’s Life section right up till her final illness, publishing her last story in early March.

Respect and sadness overcame many colleagues Sunday.

Scrivener recalls her amazement when Turnbull would be sent to the United States to cover stories. Van Rijn says she was quickly approached like any other reporter, getting stories assigned to her, going off to do her interviews and writing them up.

“She didn’t know any limitations,” he said, his voice full of emotion. “Can you imagine waking up every morning and doing what she did without being able to feel or move anything below your neck?”

Torstar board chair and former publisher John Honderich called Turnbull’s work exemplary.

“She was a great journalist. She wrote some tremendous stories. This is someone whose name had transcended virtually everything, and so people knew the story of Barbara Turnbull.

“And yet she was insistent, always determined to be just considered she was a journalist doing her job. She wanted to do great stories, she wanted to do stories that mattered. She cared about the paper. In those respects she would be like any other reporter.

“But she wasn’t. She wasn’t every other reporter, and that’s what made it so special.”

In 2013 Turnbull wrote an e-book, What I Know: Lessons from My 30 Years of Quadriplegia, published by the Star.

In its introduction, she wrote: “I can’t pinpoint the day – or even the year – when I accepted life as a quadriplegic. It likely happened incrementally over time. I only know that I have always lived as full a life as I can, tolerating what I have no choice about, fighting what I don’t have to accept, finding joy in many places and having no problem being grateful for gifts small and large.”

And near the end, she wrote, “It is possible to build a life that is satisfying and has happy moments, despite what comes at you. The majority of us who face adversity – not just paralysis – discover this.”