Cotton holding an assessment with a wheelchair user in her home. Submitted Photo

Global accessibility advocate brings efforts home

Fernie has third world accessibility problems, says Cotton

Louisa Cotton is bringing her work home with her.

The Fernie resident and occupational therapist is also a Non GovernmentOrganization (NGO) worker who helps establish accessibility programs in developing nations across the globe.

“I develop a country’s response to rehabilitation needs,” she said, explaining that she works in consultation with families and governments in the country to bring education, healthcare and basic necessities to those living with disabilities.

Cotton works with groups like the World Health Organization (WHO), Handicap International, Health Volunteers Overseas and United Cerebral Palsy to help eliminate barriers for those living with disabilities in conflict zones and developing nations.

It all started with a bad skiing accident, that left her wheelchair bound while healing from a broken leg.

“I experienced firsthand how uncomfortable it is in a wheel chair,” she said.

She couldn’t exercise, she couldn’t work, she was going stir crazy. It was her doctor that told her, now was the time to do something that she always wanted to do, but never had the time to do it.

“You need to come out of this injury and be different,” she said, remembering her doctor’s advice.

That was in 2013, and it was at this point Cotton started researching how to get involved in aid work overseas.

Since then, she’s travelled to places like the Ukraine, Jordan, Nicaragua and Bhutan.

“If you are a person with a disability in need of humanitarian aid, you are the last person to get it,” she said.

Often times, those with disabilities are forgotten in places of conflict and famine, she said.

Cotton recently returned from working in Palestine, where she drafted a report based on a WHO framework to try and implement accessibility services for those living in occupied Palestinian territories.

“We don’t save people, we strengthen communities,” she said, explaining that there are a lot of misconceptions about humanitarian work and how best to help countries in need.

She says the key is not to give aid, but to put systems in place that help the communities function.

In Palestine, she witnessed a country trying to establish rehabilitation services for children with disabilities. But as soon as conflict broke out again after Trump’s announcement, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the services went right back to emergency response.

In the space of two weeks, there were over 500 people wounded and in need of care, and Cotton says those wounded in conflcit overwhelmed the system.

She says NGOs setting up education and healthcare programs for Palestinians in the occupied territories, only to have Israelis come and destroy it.

“In many respects it felt like a losing battle,” she said.

She met a man in Gaza, with a double knee amputation at one of her focus group discussions.

“He was full of spit and vinegar,” she said, explaining that he dominated the discussion with other parents and children with disabilities, as he outspokenly explained the issues and barriers he was facing.

Weeks later, that man was killed when he went out to protest the Trump announcement.

Cotton says she learned secondhand that the man fell out of his wheelchair during the protest and was shot in the back.

“He was shot, unarmed, unable to walk, in the back because he was protesting,” she said.

She says in places like Bhutan, she saw a more hopeful situation where she was able to help implement wheelchair services for a community.

“I’ve worked in all these places in the world, passionately advocating for the full inclusion and equal opportunities for people with disabilities,” she said, “and I haven’t done anything in my own community.”

Cotton is teaming up with Grace Brulotte and the Canadian Adaptive Network, alongside other members of the community to start closing in some of the accessibility gaps in Fernie.

“In Fernie, we have third world problems within our disability sector,” she said, explaining that there are a number of organizations providing services, but they’re not coordinated.

“There needs to be some research done in Fernie.”

Cotton says that what they know already is that young people with disabilities are not staying in Fernie; they’re leaving to find services elsewhere.

“Fernie people are very kindhearted,” she said. “What we want to do is welcome all people but we can’t because we don’t have the systems in place.”

She says that while places like the gym and the public pool are accessible, they’re not being used by persons with disabilities.

“I think there’s deeper, more complex issues,” she shared, explaining that the next step is to research and develop a strategy to eliminate barriers in the city.

“We need the city to politically want to do this,” she said. Cotton admitted it’s difficult to get a community of young athletic people to want to pay more taxes in order to assist people with disabilities, who are a minority in the community.

“Governments have got to buy into this,” Cotton said.


Louisa Cotton worked in Bhutan to establish a program to provide wheelchair services to both adults and children. Submitted Photo

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