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it happened to me

Drew Cumpson started a business focusing on hospitality and disability consulting.Seema Marwaha

It was a fluke accident with a big wave hitting me. I was 20 years old, had just finished my second year of university and was planning to work for the summer when I got back from my trip to Peru. Unfortunately, I didn't come back on my feet, so those plans changed.

My whole life, I had worked to set myself up for success by going to school and getting jobs in my field. After the accident, I thought, "Okay, I just spent 20 years setting my life up and now it's shattered."

It was very difficult in the beginning. During the first part of my ICU stay, I had no idea where I was or what was going on. I was constantly in and out of consciousness. I was terrified. Every time I woke up, they would have to tell me where I was, what was going on, what had happened. And relying on a ventilator made it even more terrifying – I was worried it would pop off.

I believe in God. When I had the accident, I thought that there was obviously a purpose to it. There was a reason I was still here – to tell my story and to help improve health care. My main focus since the accident has been to advocate for people with disabilities and help them figure out how to adapt to adversity. I said to myself, "If this is what the rest of my life is going to be like, I am not going to waste it."

I am on my computer probably 14 hours a day. I use Dragon Naturally Speaking and have joysticks that I use with my lips; one is the clicker and one's the mouse mover. It allowed me to finish school. I graduated last year from the University of Guelph.

I have started my own business focusing on hospitality and disability consulting. There are barriers everywhere and I want to show that people with disabilities can still travel. You just have to plan carefully. Last February, I was in Mexico for a week. My goal is to get to all Seven Wonders of the World. I have checked off two. Machu Picchu was prior to my accident and Chichen Itza after.

One of the things that I also advocate for is creating homes and environments for people with disabilities who are younger. I was at an institution for three years when I was in my 20s and I was often the only young person with the cognitive ability to communicate with other people. That was tough.

I have 24/7 care from seven personal attendants who are funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health through the Direct Funding Program. The Community Care Access Centre provides me with a nurse in the morning and the evening and a personal-support worker (PSW) in the afternoon. With my disability, I need two people to get me in and out of bed safely.

I had finished my second year of the bachelor of commerce program at Guelph before the accident and still had 22 courses to take. I went back to school in January, 2013, and started with the distance-education courses. Then, my mom got sick with cancer, so that was another difficult time. I graduated in June, 2016.

Proctors came to my hospital room so that I didn't have to write the exams in a room full of people and be exposed to the flu. The university was amazing and really good at accommodating what I needed.

For the courses that were not offered through distance education, I Skyped into the lectures and had a student in the class take notes and send them to me after. I had two lab courses related to a restaurant that we ran on campus. We were paired up with two other students and had to create a menu and do other stuff for the restaurant.

I commuted to and from Guelph from Kingston every other Friday for a semester. I was in the rehab hospital at the time and would get up at five in the morning. My PSW would get me dressed and in my chair and we'd make the trek up to Guelph and drive back that evening. A lot of days I got home at 10 p.m., so it was a long day.

My program was very small, maybe 150 students a year, so I knew basically all the students. I went to Guelph for the graduation and also for my formal. It was the same day as my 25th birthday – they had a birthday cake for me and everything, which was nice.

I worked for a food-truck manufacturing company. I was doing sales and marketing for trucks and clients around the world. It was my first job since my accident. The company was great at making sure I had everything I needed. It's not easy trying to find a job when you can't move anything below your shoulders and are in a wheelchair.

The biggest issue I struggled with was when to tell people that I have a disability. Do I tell them before they even look at my resumé? Or do I tell them when I talk to them the first time?

With my previous employer, we were on the phone prior to the in-person interview and I said, "I am paralyzed from the neck down. I can still do everything. Obviously I can't manipulate things with my hands but I can still use my brain. I have a degree in business. I did accounting and economics – all stuff that applies to business."

He was very receptive. He wasn't afraid to ask the questions that people should ask and need to ask, such as whether I need a special bathroom. He was open to knowing. It started out as a trial period to see how I fit with the company and it worked into regular employment.

Because it is a small company, I got to do a bit of everything – sales and marketing, social-media marketing, quote proposals. I was really happy that they gave me a chance to show that I am able to work. Yes, I have a disability, but it doesn't hinder my ability to use my brain.

Drew Cumpson and his company, H&D consulting, are based in Bath, Ont.

As told to Andreas Laupacis.

This story first appeared in Healthy Debate, an online publication guided by health-care professionals and patients that covers health policy and evidence-based medicine in Canada