Build A Better Relationship With A Disability

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BY WILLIAM CHIU

HALLDOR BJARNASON

Chief Scout Award recipient, gold medal-winning Paralympian, Terry Fox Humanitarian Award recipient, community service award recipient from the BC branch of the Canadian Bar Association, cerebral palsy and disability advocate — those are just a few of the accomplishments in the life of Halldor Bjarnason. If you looked at his resume and tried to guess which one of his accolades he is most proud of, you may be surprised by his answer because it’s not there.

A man of many talents, Halldor Bjarnason’s found his main calling with law, which he has been practicing ever since 1991. After completing high school, Halldor attended university in Winnipeg where he received an honors degree in political science. He followed this up by electing to go to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, to earn his Bachelor of Laws degree. After graduating in 1989, he managed to find an articling position in Toronto’s Bay Street area and, two years later, was called to the Ontario Bar in 1991. In 1993, he was called to the Bar again in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he practices currently.

Among a number of topics of practice, Halldor specializes in estate planning and disability cases. He’s appeared in BC Supreme Court as an expert witness on disability trusts, developed creative solutions for people at risk of being cut off from provincial disability assistance, and provided legal advice to numerous charities which support people with disabilities. Not only is he a great lawyer, he acts as a true ambassador of the disability community at the same time.

Along with being exceptional in his career, he found great success in athletics. He was able to earn two medals in the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul: gold in the 1500m and silver in the 3000m trike events. Throughout his education, he competed in many events and returned to the Paralympic Games in 1992 in Barcelona. Unsurprisingly, he was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame for his achievements in Seoul and served on the CPISRA Athletes Commission for four years.

HIS MOST CHERISHED ROLE: DAD

Positive. Influential. Accomplished. These are words that I would use to describe Halldor Bjarnason. But if you ask him he would probably say, “Father.”

Since he was a young man, Halldor cherished dreams of becoming a father. Creating, raising, and shaping a child into a loving and contributing member of society was a dream, however, he admitted to struggling with this. He always imagined falling in love and eventually having a child over the years, but he declared an end to his parenting opportunities at age 40. Little did he know that this declaration would be short-lived.

You can call it irresponsibility or call it divine intervention, life had other plans for him. When Halldor turned 42, he became a father to a baby boy. His name is Elliot.

This unanticipated turn of events was a huge surprise for Halldor. On one hand, he realized one of his greatest dreams, on the other hand, it was completely unexpected. To add to the adversity, Elliot’s mother had no intention of sharing her life with Halldor; they came to an agreement about having dual custody over Elliot. This agreement granted both of them the opportunity to care for Elliot on the basis of half-time.

As difficult as this sounds, Halldor reacted the best way anyone could and that was by being there for Elliot every step of the way. He learned to change, bathe, feed, and nurture his son immediately through the help of his own mother. He wanted to do all the things he envisioned when he wanted a child as a young man, and it was his chance to do it. Considering Halldor’s inherent drive as a humanitarian, his spirit to help others seemed to have been passed down to his son.

Over the years, Halldor has been involved with many organizations, such as the Law Society of BCs Equity and Diversity Committee, Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network and the Cerebral Palsy Association of BC. For the latter, he’s spoken at youth groups and led discussion panels on aging with a disability – he truly makes an effort to get out into the community and make a positive impact on others.

That’s why it comes to no surprise when Halldor tells us that Elliot shows a great amount of respect and compassion towards others, despite his young age. However, another contributing factor to Elliot’s empathetic position might have something to do with his father’s cerebral palsy.

For those who might not know, the ways in which cerebral palsy affect the body are quite unique from one individual to another. For some, cerebral palsy presents minimal challenges and, in reality, they can do what any other able-bodied person can do. For others, cerebral palsy can be extremely debilitating and include difficulties like speech impediment, problems with chewing or swallowing, and restricted movement and coordination. In Halldor’s case, he has difficulties with movement and speech which has also made some of his duties as a father a bit more difficult. But as you can probably tell, it hasn’t stopped him from doing what he wants to do in life.

Halldor explained that having Elliot see his father’s personal, physical challenges at such a young age may have played a role in jump starting his thoughts on the social perceptions of disability. It’s a mature and complex topic which often raises ideas about equality and accessibility. Even though Elliot might not fully understand some of the struggles that people with disabilities face, welcoming these ideas at such a young age is a major accomplishment. Halldor may not have intended it, but he believes that he has already instilled the values of equality and compassion within Elliot.

Since Elliot was just an infant, he has always wanted to take care of his dad. Halldor recalls a special memory of Elliot when he was six years old during a family outing for Spring break. They visited a breakfast buffet that was self-serve and Halldor asked one of the servers to help carry glasses of juice to their table. With a quick turn and shout, Elliot exclaimed, “Daddy, if you need help, you ask ME! Do you understand?”

And just like that Halldor realized that something was going well.

Like most things in life, it’s a mixture. The unique and exceptional factors around having a parent with a disability, in conjunction with the guidance of a dutiful, idealistic and inspired father, have shaped Elliot into the person he is now. But it also takes a child with an open mind and a willingness to learn and adapt, especially in a scenario such as Elliot’s. He has learned about his father’s challenges and for the most part, this knowledge and awareness seems to have made a very positive influence on his well-being.

Personal achievements and community empowerment are par for the course for Halldor. However, none seem greater or more special than being a parent and a father. A single person was able to change his entire outlook on life and that’s why Halldor’s ultimate goal is to be Elliot’s role model — to set a positive example and help him become the best person he can be. The most amazing part? Cerebral palsy never held their relationship back, it only propelled them forward.•

For more information on Halldor Bjarnason and the Cerebral Palsy Association of BC, visit: http://bccerebralpalsy.com