Advocate Empowering Others One Sidewalk at a Time

Mike Stiles is a soft-spoken man whose quiet demeanor does nothing to suggest

that deep down he is a defiant daredevil who has not allowed his disability, and others’ perception of it, to stop him from accomplishing what he sets his mind to.

He is not boastful about his personal triumphs or athletic endeavours and would rather steer conversations to the topic that he is most passionate about - accessibility.

Whether he is describing his past or detailing his plans for the future, the one word that Stiles keeps coming back to is ‘empowering.’

Stiles was born in Alberta and grew up on a farm. He worked hard and learned to be self-sufficient, making do with what he had. He applied this lesson to his life when, at the age of 18, he was badly injured while on a horse.

Stiles was breaking horses for a trainer in Vancouver and preparing to become a jockey when the horse he was on got spooked while on the icy track. Stiles was thrown from the horse and snapped his neck. He became paralyzed from the chest down.

Stiles recalls that initially following the accident he was “feeling extremely disabled.” But as he sat in the hospital he thought “shit, if I just sit here life’s gonna be very long…why not make the best of it?”

While in a rehabilitation hospital he watched a target-shooting demonstration and remembered that he was “fairly good at shooting as a kid.” He could not use his hands and was reluctant at first but decided to try it.

When he was ready to compete “they looked at me like I was disabled,” he says.

The looks did not deter him. “I won six straight matches,” he says as he beams with obvious pride.

As he reminisces about the moment, his usually composed face breaks into a mischievous grin as he recalls the look of shock on the faces of the other competitors.

The experience “completely changed my outlook on life,” he says. He describes it as a “complete switch in mindset.” He says he realized how empowering it was to be able to do something that an able-bodied person could do.

He went onto compete at the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona, Spain as a member of the Canadian National Para-Shooting team.

At the GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver he met fellow quadriplegic Sam Sullivan. They decided to form a club and pilot ultralights; An Ultralight is a lightweight,fixed-wing aeroplane that seats two people. They called themselves The Disabled Ultralighters of Vancouver.

Stiles said that people looked at them “sideways” because they were “quads” flying an ultralight. “Leaving your chair behind was, you know, just an awesome feeling…no barriers,” he told the club.

Stiles continued to do things that able-bodied people could do but also tackled a lot of things that many would never attempt. He rattles off a list of the things he has done as if they were something that everyone does. He nonchalantly describes how he was strapped to his chair while bungee-jumping and shrugs his shoulders as if it were no big deal or something that most people do every day. 

As a founding member of several not-for-profit organizations, Stiles has seen the formation of several ground-breaking programs.

The British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society (BCMOS) designed and created the prototype to the modern Trailrider - a custom access-all-areas wheelchair that enables people with physical disabilities to enjoy the wilderness. It is in use all over the world.

The society also formed The Disabled Sailing Association of British Columbia (DSA-BC). Initially using a sailboat donated by Rick Hanson (which he himself received in 1986 from then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), DSA-BC is a program that allows disabled people the  opportunity to go sailing in custom-designed sailboats.

“Someone who can’t compete on a physical aspect can get in and sail…every time I see it I say ‘wow’,” Stiles says.

In 2001 Stiles moved to Osoyoos. He is a member of Accessible Okanagan and an active participant in the program most dear to his heart, Fishing Forever.

The brainchild of journalist Walt Liimatainen, Fishing Forever was formed in 1989. Stiles attended the event in Peachland and remembers thinking “wow, it’d be great to have something in Osoyoos.” Stiles and Norm Eady brought it to Osoyoos in 2013.

Every year in the last two weeks of May Fishing Forever gives people with disabilities the opportunity to spend a day fishing and enjoying the outdoors with their friends and family without having to worry about accessibility.

Stiles calls the all-ages event “extremely empowering.” He describes the fishing rod as “an equalizer” and that the feeling participants get is “like me shooting against those able-bodied people.”

Whereas Stiles once took pleasure in seeing the skepticism on the faces of the able-bodied, he now delights in seeing the look of joy on the faces of his peers. “I love seeing people empowered by these activities,” he says.

Stiles’ approach to life is usually to make the best of things, but when it comes to accessibility his annoyance is apparent.

The Osoyoos zoning bylaw states that if a private building requires more than 10 off-street spaces, five percent of those spaces must be accessible. Stiles says that many of them are not wide enough to accommodate his folding vehicle ramp.

“Doing something an able-bodied person can do is empowering, going to the grocery store and not being able to find a proper parking spot is the opposite of empowering,” he says.

According to the Government of Canada website, 3.8 million Canadians over the age of 15identify as having a disability.

In June2018 the House of Commons of Canada introduced bill C-81 “an act to ensure a barrier-free Canada.” Stiles would like to see Osoyoos follow suit.

Stiles says that if Canadians better understood the needs of the disabled they would realize how important accessibility is.

Recently he fell “face first” onto the road in a neighbouring town because of an inaccessible bump-out. He points to the still visible bruise across his forehead and says, “I see it and I feel it when it’s not accessible.”

He shakes his head disappointedly as he wonders aloud what would happen if a visually impaired person were to get hurt or if a senior citizen were to fall down because of bad sidewalks.

Stiles’ tireless advocacy for accessibility in Osoyoos is about making the infrastructure safe and accessible for all people. He hates to see people experience what he refers to as “a lack of empowerment.”

As the co-chair for the Age Friendly Committee that is helping to make changes in Osoyoos, Stiles says“it’s getting better all the time.”

Stiles has cause to be disappointed or bitter but that is just not the kind of person he is. “If I see bad I like to say, ‘how can I change it?’” he says.

When Stiles tries to think of what his life would be like if he had not been hurt all those years ago he says, “I truly believe everything happens to a reason.”

He says having a positive attitude makes life easier. He also thinks that if he would not have gotten hurt he might have missed out on a lot of things. “I did things…if I wasn’t hurt…there are things I wouldn’t have done,” he says.

Stiles sits quietly fora moment, contemplating. Finally, he smiles and says: “I look at my two girls and stepdaughter…my two daughters wouldn’t be here if not for my injury.”

Not one to be immodest,Stiles says quietly: “I think I’ve made a difference in people’s lives.” But then he quickly reverts back to the issue of accessibility and how empowering in can be.

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