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July 24, 2016

Kelly McKenna

Welcome to the second in our series of profiles on Haligonians with disabilities. This time I sat down with 24-year-old Kelly McKenna.

Last Wednesday (July 20th) was like many days we’ve been having of late, hot and humid. I arrived at our designated meeting place, the Starbucks in the Halifax Professional Building, about twenty minutes ahead of our scheduled 5:30 interview. I decided to go against my usual instincts and get an iced coffee. I was sitting there mentally preparing for the interview (I think to interview effectively is most definitely an acquired skill) and pondering the nature and origin of iced coffee when the subject of the interview arrived.

The first thing that strikes you upon meeting 24-year-old Kelly McKenna is her overtly sunny disposition and charismatic nature. I mention that because, in contrast to many of us (myself included), who seem to require a requisite number of hours of sleep or cups of coffee just to face the world on a daily basis, it is obvious that Kelly genuinely enjoys being out and about interacting with people on a daily basis. Once our initial introductions were out of the way, we got into the interview.

Kelly McKenna was born in Hamilton, Bermuda, where her father has worked as an accountant for over thirty years. Asked about what it was like growing up there, Kelly had nothing but good to say. In particular, she highlighted the quality of education she received. She also noted that she was fortunate in that she and her family had frequent opportunities to travel in her youth. In keeping with her upbeat nature, she added that her childhood had left her “with nothing to complain about.”

Kelly was born with a condition known as arthrogryposis, which left her muscles lacking the strength to weight-bear or lift anything. The condition made necessary a number of surgeries as Kelly grew, but one aspect of her condition that Kelly highlighted as a positive is that “it won’t get any worse, so I’m lucky in that way.” Kelly’s mobility is aided through the use of a power wheelchair.

Asked about her educational background, McKenna explained that she graduated from Citadel High School here in Halifax as a member of its 2010 class, before moving to the nation’s capital to attend university at Carleton. She graduated from Carleton in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree, majoring in anthropology and minoring in music. One of the things that Kelly mentioned as a strength of Carleton with regard to accessibility and services for students with disabilities was its attendant care program, which employs students of the university to assist students with a disability who require assistance in any number of areas, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.” and In Kelly’s case, the program not only provided her with the assistance she required, but also a friend who over the years has become one of her closest. So much so, in fact, that when her friend graduated from university this past spring, she made the move east to Halifax, where she and Kelly now share an apartment and maintain the same arrangement they had as students. Kelly is quick to stress, however, that their relationship goes beyond that of the standard client-attendant dynamic, and that the two rarely think of their situation in those terms.

Following the completion of her degree two years ago, McKenna very quickly found employment as the media coordinator for the law firm of Stewart McKelvey. Asked to summarize what the job entails, McKenna explains, “I manage and maintain the external website, which includes updating biographical information, as well as drafting and publishing firm news pieces.”

When asked about her activities and interests outside of the world of work, the self-professed “social butterfly” humorously admitted to what she called a “slight shopping addiction”, an affliction that she was quick to point out is common to many young women her age. Aside from this, she also mentioned a love for both television and the movies. Asked if she had any favourites in those areas, she replied, “in terms of movies, anything with Will Ferrell in it is a favourite…Mean Girls is really good but I feel like that’s a bit of a cliché. As far as TV, I’m a big fan of reality competition shows. I have a big group of friends that come over to watch The Bachelor…I love Big Brother and American Ninja Warrior. I used to watch more TV, but then life happens.”

Given that McKenna does lead such a full life in both the professional and personal spheres, I wanted to get her thoughts on accessibility in the city, and whether she rated it as a welcoming space for persons with a disability. “I definitely feel like it’s a welcoming space…I find it somewhat accessible. I’ve been to places where accessibility is better, but I’ve been places where its worse.. In my experience, people are very open to finding a solution that works for both parties…even if it doesn’t happen as fast as it could. Again, I find Halifax to be a very welcoming city.” The issue of accessibility arose again when I asked Kelly about how her daily life differed from that of an able-bodied person. She further remarked that, “if a place is not accessible, obviously I won’t go and I can’t go, but I’m lucky enough to have friends who, if they find out that a place isn’t accessible, will change it to somewhere else.”

Aside from her gregarious nature, the thing that struck me most in my conversation with Kelly was just how much she valued the relationships that she had with friends and family. Nowhere did this come through more than when I asked her who she admired most in the world: “I would say my mom, my dad, and my brother. I have the most amazing support system. There are so many things that I admire about each of them. They are the ones who have taught me to have such a positive outlook. Family was so instrumental in shaping my outlook, so I’d definitely say the three of them.”

Even though this project is still in its early stages, I am quickly learning that I have been fortunate to have been put in the position I have, to be able to interview people from a variety of backgrounds and get their varying perspectives and world views. I think it’s safe to say that I will learn and take something away from each person I profile. In the case of Paul, I think I was reminded of the importance of giving back to the community you live in and the people around you for no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do. I was also reminded of the importance and power of art, both individually and on the collective. Reflecting back on my interaction with Kelly, I think I was reminded of the importance of perspective, and I was genuinely struck by the sense of gratitude she carries with her daily. I don’t think any single word appeared as often in our conversation as ‘lucky’, which Kelly invoked to describe everything from the quality of life she has, to her professional opportunities, and especially her relationships with friends and family. All too often, it is very easy to focus on the negative in a given situation or the struggles we all encounter on a daily basis. My conversation with Kelly reminded me to take a moment and focus on the other side of the coin when given the opportunity.

Until next time,
-Jeremy MacDonald

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