Jeff Preston

Jeff Preston

He's funny, he's articulate, he's obviously intelligent and his primary method of transportation just happens to be a wheelchair.  He's Jeff Preston, formerly of Port Elgin, and now about to work on his Doctorate in Media Relations at Western University ... after he completes a run from London to Ottawa that is.

Preston is trying to draw attention to the state of transportation in Ontario, and Canada in general, for those who are physically challenged.

"I have learned that travel can definitely be a challenge," says Preston.  "I travelled to England with my friend Alex and, upon arrival, found that my wheelchair had also arrived, but in pieces.  I was told that it was my responsibility to put it together.  I thought, 'I may sit in it but I sure don't know how to build it'.  Fortunately, a janitor at the airport happened by and, much to our surprise, he was from India and had a PhD in Engineering.  In no time at all, I had my wheelchair in one piece."   Preston was alluding to the fact that every aspect of air travel can be a challenge in itself for someone who is physically challenged.

"In London, Alex and I thought we would go sightseeing.  I asked the hotel staff, where we were staying, if they could order me a special cab that would accommodate my wheelchair.  The staff looked at me in a strange way and told me if I wanted a cab all I had to do was flag one down.  I explained to them that I needed a special cab and that, where I lived, we had to reserve one at least three days in advance.  After a discussion back and forth, I decided to do as they suggested and went outside and hailed a cab ... any cab.  Much to my surprise a cab pulled up, the driver came round to my side, opened the door and released a ramp.  I didn't realize it, but all the cabs in London are wheelchair accessible!"

According to Preston, London, England and London, Ontario are two very different places when it comes to transportation for someone with a challenge.

"In London, Ontario," Preston explains, "public transportation, the LTC, offers little in the way of transportation for those who are challenged.  Few public buses are equipped and 'Paratrans', or 'wheeltrans' as it's sometimes known, is very limiting.  There are only 26 buses with four spaces each to accommodate 300 people.  In addition, the system is very restrictive.  

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For instance, if you want a ride, you must be registered and must book three days in advance by 7:00 a.m. in the morning.  If for any reason, you miss the ride ... whether it's illness or being in the wrong spot at the right time ... you receive a letter of warning that, if you miss a pick-up again for any reason, you are removed from the registry."

One can only imagine how the loss of freedom movement affects a life but to have any semblance of freedom taken away as though you are an errant child when you are an adult must be difficult to say the least.

"It's not just the outside world," adds Preston, "sometimes it's also a huge problem from within.  Some who have physical challenges use their disabilities as a crutch.  I was very lucky in that my family never encouraged that kind of behavior.  I was always told you can do anything you want to do.  I also learned there were some things I couldn't do, such as be a fighter pilot, but, if you really want to accomplish something, you can."

Preston began playing wheelchair hockey in Grade 7 and still plays today.  He also admires his sister who has played hockey in a girls' league when it wasn't the norm for girls to do.  "Everybody has limitations," he points out.  "When you look at the word 'disabled' ... 'dis' means lacking and 'abled' means abilitity ... so disabled means lacking ability.  Well, everyone lacks ability of some kind."

On May 5 at 9:30, Preston will set out on a 47 day trek, in his wheelchair, from London to Ottawa.  He is hoping to bring attention to the lack of government support when it comes to transportation for others who are in a similar situation to his and has been booked to speak at many schools along the route.   "This is about education," stresses Preston.  "not just for people but for our government officials.  People, like me, who need transportation to lead a full and normal life, are always being told to wait just a little longer.  Well, now is the time to demand change."

Preston has already been asked to meet with several Mayors along his route in May and will meet with Premier McGuinty in Toronto in addition to the Mayor of Ottawa upon his arrival, the last leg of which is along Terry Fox Drive.

The trip is expected to cost approximately $25,000.  "We are are very fortunate," says Preston, "in that we've had some amazing sponsors.  The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) for instance has contributed $10,000 and Bruce Power has been generous with another $5,000.  Shoppers' Health Watch is taking care of all my chair repairs and tires and, fortunately, people have been extremely generous in donations.  Like any other challenge however, money is always an issue ... but, I will continue to fight and resist, this is all about change."

For donations and more information go to  www.getmobolized.ca

Watch for the Jeff Preston Golf Tournament to be held in Saugeen Shores in July.