Ian Harry Parker: Husband. Father. Advocate. Teacher. Born April 2, 1947, in London, Ont.; died April 15, 2021, in Toronto, of respiratory failure; aged 74.
It doesn’t always end this way – someone with quadriplegia marrying his soulmate, becoming the proud father of a bright and talented musician, living for 47 years after his accident, and being loved and admired by his extended family, attendants, friends and colleagues. Amidst the sorrow of Ian Parker’s death, there is so much to celebrate.
An accomplished pianist, Ian was heading for a career in music when his life changed in the summer of 1974. Ian was 27 when he had a diving accident in Lake Scugog that left him with C5-6 quadriplegia, meaning he had no ability to move his legs and only limited control of his arms. His story could have ended very differently, given the challenges faced by people with disabilities, but Ian was an individual of tremendous character.
Ian was the son of a Canadian army officer. His family moved often during his childhood: Kansas City; Ottawa; Oakville, Ont.; London; Paris; Ottawa (again); and Kettleby, Ont., before settling in Toronto. The frequent moves were tough but would help shape him, notably Ian’s self-reliance, adaptability and love for his family.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Ian went to work in the independent living movement. In 1980, Ian became a founding member of Access U of T, which pushed the University of Toronto to adopt a policy of accessibility. In the early 1990s, Ian was one of the founders of the Direct Funding program that provides Ontarians with physical disabilities with more control over their lives by allowing them to manage their own day-to-day care. Ian’s contributions were recognized throughout his life, and posthumously with the David C. Onley Award for Leadership in Accessibility.
In 1992, Ian met Lisa Bendall at a film screening in Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio and she agreed to have dinner with him at a Malaysian restaurant. Early in their relationship, she noticed his intelligence, his sense of humour and his inner strength. “Perhaps ironically, he had more spine than any man I had ever dated,” Lisa said at Ian’s memorial service.
After two years together they bought a house in Toronto and married in 1996. Their daughter, Emily, was born three years later.
Ian did not let his disability limit his parenting; he found its unique advantages. Emily remembers zooming down the sidewalk on the back of her father’s wheelchair and he visited her school to talk about disability issues. Ian was a gifted and patient teacher, helping Emily learn piano and building her appreciation for music. He was thrilled that Emily is following in his footsteps to pursue a career in music.
Ian was a favourite uncle, too. Every August, he packed his nephews and their cousin into his van to spend the day at Ontario Place. He kept an eye on them as they played in the Children’s Village, splashed at the water park and watched humpback whales at the IMAX theatre. When they ran out of steam, Ian gave them rides on his wheelchair. The day ended with a trip to a downtown restaurant. It says something about Ian’s determination and confidence that he was able to look after three children on his own at a busy theme park.
Ian was an outlier. Over his final decade, his doctors struggled to help him because so few people live with spinal cord trauma for as long as he did. You don’t get to 74 with quadriplegia without a huge amount of resolve.
Years ago, Ian moved from being part of a privileged group – able-bodied white men – to one that is disadvantaged: people with disabilities. It’s hard to imagine a tougher test of character. It’s also hard to imagine a more determined and emphatic response.
Alex Parker is Ian’s nephew.
To submit a Lives Lived: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide