It started with a story,
which turned into a passion...
My name is Tessa Smith, I'm twenty, and I am the Founder of Chatability. My passion for disability activism started as a small fire lit inside of me when I was born, but really began to flourish within the past five years.
I was diagnosed with Bilateral Retinoblastoma (eye cancer, cancer of the retinas affecting both eyes) when I was three months old. After going through one cycle of chemotherapy, the treatment had the opposite effect it was supposed to and blew the tumor apart in my right eye instead of shrinking it. I then had to have my right eye removed, as my doctors feared it would have spread through my optic nerve into my brain. My left eye had four tumours which were treated with chemo and laser treatment; I went into remission for six months, but later developed three new tumours within that eye; luckily those tumours were caught early enough and were lasered.
13 years later, knowing all my life that I had a 4% chance of developing Osteosarcoma (bone cancer), I was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma in my first teenage year. I endured seven months of intense, high-dose chemotherapy, and had a Rotationplasty amputation of my left leg in the summer of 2012.
While I am now almost six years in remission, I live in a state of chronic pain because of one accidental slip I had just one year after my amputation. Since then I suffer chronic edema in the foot and ankle of my Rotationplasty foot, as well as chronic pain. Typically with a Rotationplasty amputation, people are still able to be incredibly active with their new limb; because of my chronic illnesses, I am not so lucky. Recently I have begun having to use a cane when I go out, and occasionally my wheelchair.
However, I do my best not to let my disabilities determine what I am able to do with my one life.
In 2016 I was the Terry Fox Poster Girl all across Canada, and have been an Ambassador with the Terry Fox Foundation for 6 years. I have also been a SickKids Ambassador for 6 years. Being in these roles allows me to share my story, and motivate others that you can still accomplish your goals even after you are rendered disabled or incapable. I have been a freelance journalist for the last 4 years, having been published in newspapers such as the Toronto Sun, the Toronto Star, and Peterborough Examiner (where I now run a bi-weekly opinion column titled, Tessa Takes Charge). When I was 16 I had a short documentary made on my life, called Being Tessa, which showcased at Bloor St. Cinemas in Toronto in 2014.
I have done a lot with my life after cancer, but most recently began my post-secondary experience at Trent University in Peterborough, in September 2017.
Within my first year there, I was elected Disability Commissioner for the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) -- I have since left this position for personal reasons -- and I one of the two Student Governors on the Board of Governors for the University. In 2018, I worked exclusively on the Trent Orientation Week's Brave Space Team to facilitate an Accessibility Session for incoming students, which provided resources and accessible activities to everyone who was in attendance -- this session was supported by the Council for Persons with Disabilities in Peterborough.
So how did I come up with Chatability?
When I ran for election for the TCSA in March 2018, I came up with the idea as a campaign to run throughout my term as Disability Commissioner. But to me it was for more than just a campaign for Trent. I wanted to create an accessible online forum for any student attending college or university to be able to connect with other students with disabilities attending post-secondary school. My main motive to create this site is and was, because it is no secret that most post-secondary institutions are not disability friendly. Between the obsessive amount of stairs, lack of ramps and elevators, to next to no options for braille or interpreters in lectures or seminars, it is a bit of a mess - and these are just some issues scratching the surface.
What I really want to come out of Chatability is to generate conversations and ideas from students with disabilities everywhere to use their spirit, feel empowered, and make a change in their communities, and in their schools for disabled rights... Because disabled rights are human rights!
The unfortunate fact is, the disabled community is one of the most oppressed communities worldwide, as we sit just on or below the poverty line.
With this in mind, please go exploring the site. Meet new people, talk about the issues you may face at your particular school wherever you are from; talk about the ways you might be able to fix them or bring light to them. Above all: be resourceful and be kind. Remember everyone has a different experience with disability, and comes from a different background. Use your disability knowledge and share it with others; and if you do not know much about the community, that is okay! Click over to our Resources Page to educate yourself further on some core issues, and general information.
I sincerely hope you may find some peace, inclusion, and empathy within the pages of this site, and with your conversations with others.
The future should be all-inclusive. Together, let's be brave and embrace our disabilities for a better present, and future, to all those living in our community who face oppression every day, just because of the body they're in.