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From accident to advocacy, alumna leaves mark on Queen's

In honour of Queen’s 175th anniversary, the Equity Office and the Human Rights Office will bestow their Human Rights Initiative, Steve Cutway Accessibility, and Employment Equity awards on alumni.

Ahead of the ceremony on Feb. 27, the Gazette is profiling the winners, including Katie Charboneau, Artsci’11, who worked as an accessibility advocate and ambassador during her studies at Queen’s.

Ask many alumni about their first visit to Queen’s, and they will likely talk about falling in love with the natural beauty and historic limestone buildings.

Katie Charboneau’s first campus tour also made a significant impression, even if it didn’t quite live up to expectations.

[Katie Charboneau]
Katie Charboneau, Artsci’11, the first quadriplegic student to live on campus in residence, will receive the Steve Cutway Accessibility Award for her advocacy work at Queen’s and beyond. Michele Chittenden, who nominated Ms. Charboneau for the award, says the alumna's enthusiasm and positive attitude are infectious. (Submitted photo)

“At the time, the campus tour office was in Stauffer Library. I ended up spending 90 per cent of the tour trapped with the tour guide in the elevator after it broke down,” says Ms. Charboneau (Artsci’11), a quadriplegic who uses a motorized wheelchair. “By the time I got out, I had to go back to St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital.”

Ms. Charboneau didn’t let that negative experience or the barriers she encountered at Queen’s derail her education. During her studies from 2006-2013, she advocated extensively for herself and others – work that has earned her the 2016 Steve Cutway Accessibility Award.

“I am someone who rolls with the punches, pun intended,” she says. “I am really into problem solving. I don’t panic and I try to find humour in difficult situations."

Michele Chittenden, Coordinator, Library Services for Students with Disabilities, nominated Ms. Charboneau for the award.  

“Katie is a remarkable person and one of the most thoughtful people I know," Ms. Chittenden says. "Her enthusiasm and positive attitude are infectious. Katie’s initiatives and strong advocacy skills have made a significant, long-lasting impact for persons with disabilities both on the Queen's campus and in the Kingston community. The Queen’s and Kingston communities are fortunate to have such a hard-working, creative, caring, and enthusiastic advocate.”

Overcoming obstacles

Ms. Charboneau had planned to attend Carleton University, but changed after she was involved in a car accident in June 2005 near her hometown of Gananoque, Ont. She spent five weeks in the intensive care unit at Kingston General Hospital and five months at St. Mary’s of the Lake recovering from injuries.

During her recovery, Ms. Charboneau applied to Queen’s and was accepted. She began her studies just over a year after the accident, knowing that she would encounter challenges along the way.

“I was the first quadriplegic to live on campus in residence. In a way, I was the guinea pig, but I loved doing it,” she says. “It was scary and I knew there were going to be problems. But, as I’ve always said, what Queen’s lacked in accessibility, it made up in accommodations. Staff and faculty worked to solve issues as fast and efficiently as possible.”

With every problem she encountered, Ms. Charboneau advocated for herself. She says she followed the example set by her mom. “She really stuck up for me, starting immediately after the accident. She was my advocate, and that’s where I get it from.”

Soon after starting her studies, Ms. Charboneau felt compelled to help others at Queen’s. She volunteered with Accessibility Queen’s in her first year. For the next five years, she co-chaired the group, which is part of the Alma Mater Society’s Social Issues Commission.

“Becoming an activist on these issues was just a natural progression,” she says. “I was advocating for myself, but I soon realized that others might not be comfortable doing that or have the desire to come forward in the same way.”

Ms. Charboneau worked to change attitudes on campus, in addition to bringing attention to physical barriers. She spearheaded the creation of a Queen’s Accessibility Awareness Month as well as a specialized library, two initiatives that raised awareness of accessibility issues and helped to educate the Queen’s community.

Read the profile of Diane Kelly, Law’83, winner of the 2016 Human Rights Initiative Award.

Accessibility Queen’s also hosted an information awareness fair each year, which connected students with groups, committees, and organizations on campus and within the broader Kingston community. Ms. Charboneau is currently doing similar work as the administrative manager with All In. The Kingston-based organization provides expert information, education, support, and opportunity for all individuals and organizations, in the area of mobility impairments.

Ms. Chittenden says Ms. Charboneau’s continued work in the area of accessibility made the alumna a deserving recipient of the Steve Cutway Accessibility Award, which is named in honour of a long-serving employee who also gave his time to advance accessibility for students and employees with disabilities.

“I was surprised when I found out, and I thought it was just an honour to be nominated,” Ms. Charboneau says. “As much as I don’t do this for the recognition, it feels good knowing that I am making a difference.”

Visit the Queen’s Accessibility Hub website for more information about the Steve Cutway Accessibility Award.