With the help of volunteers, Kuen Tang (centre) scaled one of Canmore's highest peaks. (Photo: Jeff Bellmont)
When Kuen Tang, ’06 BEd, reached the summit of Ha Ling Peak last fall, she might have been a century behind the original trailblazer, but she certainly blazed a trail as the first quadriplegic to reach the top, 2,400 metres above sea level.
Tackling the ascent to Ha Ling Peak, in Canmore, Alta., is just one of many firsts Tang has accomplished since a car accident in 2001 left her quadriplegic with only partial use of her arms and no hand functions. She was the first female quadriplegic to earn a Bachelor of Education degree with specialization in elementary school from the U of A and the first quadriplegic to letter comics for DC Comics.
Tang was assisted in the climb by more than 40 volunteers, including volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Adaptive Sports Centre, the Push to Open Nature Society, and several of her co-workers at WorleyParsons, an international engineering firm that also sponsored the activity.
“WorleyParsons really exceeded my expectations,” says Tang, a documents controller in the company's Edmonton office. “They were so determined and willing to do pretty much anything — all for a brand new employee, a stranger, and for the bigger cause, supporting the determination and ability of persons with disability. I swear, at moments it felt like they were all planning their weddings because they thought of absolutely everything."
"Once I overcame the hardest thing I've ever done, I realized there was nothing to stop me from going after anything I wanted."
Describing the moment she reached the summit, she recalls, “All I could think was, 'I am the luckiest person in the world to have so many people that support me to achieve another milestone for people with disability. With a little support from many people, there is no limit to what anyone can do.' Then I giggled and said, ‘I hope I didn't start a snowball effect and have every person with a disability in the world wanting to climb Ha Ling.’ ”
Tang is quick to acknowledge the people who have helped her achieve her goals over the years. “I received and continue to receive the most important support from my community, emotional support. Every time I think about giving up, slowing down, I think of what my community has invested in me, I can't let them down. I'm determined to be an investment my community can be proud of, so they can go on to invest in other people like me.”
She explains that it was the struggle of earning her degree at the U of A that was the catalyst for constantly challenging herself. “After getting my degree, it felt like I had conquered the world. Once I overcame the hardest thing I've ever done, I realized there was nothing to stop me from going after anything I wanted.”
However, one of the recurring obstacles Tang faces in achieving her goals is accessibility. This fact was driven home when Tang realized that despite her degree she would have difficulty finding work locally because many of Edmonton's elementary schools are not fully accessible. Despite this setback, she remains optimistic. “Too many people in my situation decide it’s not worth it to go out because they have to figure out if there are stairs, if the bathrooms are accessible ... So most people just stay at home and never travel. That’s what I love about travel. I have to figure out how to modify what’s in front of me, how to adapt to a new environment — constantly asking, 'How do I make this work?' ”
Tang is passionate about universal design and discusses the coming “silver tsunami,” when society will have to face the realities of having a larger aging population who require better accessibility. “Accessibility is often an afterthought, when it should have been part of the original design. Too many people write it off as expensive or that it will only be used by a few people. But that’s the difference with accessible design versus universal design. Universal design is for everyone and not just for those people in need of special features.”
It was her passion for universal design that inspired her to collaborate with illustrators from around the world to create a comic series about issues facing people with disabilities. Tang writes and letters the strips, but chose able-bodied artists to draw for her in the hopes that they will take away a new perspective on these issues.
Tang uses her personal experience as inspiration for her comics supporting universal design.
In addition to publishing her collection of comic strips, Tang hopes to participate in public speaking events like Pecha Kucha to increase awareness about universal design and disability. As for her next challenge? “I would love to try heli-skiing and scuba-diving. It's not about how difficult it is to do these things from a wheelchair, it’s about how much do you want it, how hard you are willing to work for it, and where you will find your support. I always like to say, 'I am Mighty Kuen. Don’t let my disability scare you, let my ability impress you.' ”
See how Tang reached the top of Ha Ling Peak with help from volunteers (GlobalTV).