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

Just Posted

Eight U.S. senators write to John Horgan over pollution from Elk Valley mines

The dispute stems from Teck Resources’ coal mines

People throwing food at a bear in Fernie alarms conservation groups

Wildlife conservation groups in the Elk Valley are encouraging individuals to be… Continue reading

Sushi, sake and silk kimono

“The Kimono of Ichimaru” opening night at Fernie Museum attracts sellout crowd

Mexico-bound Tour Divide riders complete first day, pass through Fernie

Divide riders looking strong as they finish first leg of 4160 km race

Convicted B.C. child abductor Randall Hopley back in custody, 6 months since release

Correctional Services Canada could not provide further details due to privacy concerns

PHOTOS: Elusive ‘ghost whale’ surfaces near Campbell River

Ecotourism operator captures images of the rare white orca

Elk Valley Bulls RFC reclaim Kootenay Cup

Elk Valley beats Cranbrook 7-5 to win Kootenay Cup; team off to provincials in September

Victoria mom describes finding son ‘gone’ on first day of coroners inquest into overdose death

Resulting recommendations could change handling of youth records amidst the overdose crisis

Dash-cam video in trial of accused cop killer shows man with a gun

Footage is shown at trial of Oscar Arfmann, charged with killing Const. John Davidson of Abbotsford

Suicide confirmed in case of B.C. father who’d been missing for months

2018 disappearance sparked massive search for Ben Kilmer

Threats charge against Surrey’s Jaspal Atwal stayed

Atwal, 64, was at centre of controversy in 2018 over his attendance at prime minister’s reception in India

Anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to speak in Surrey

He’s keynote speaker at Surrey Environment and Business Awards luncheon by Surrey Board of Trade Sept. 17

Otters devour 150 trout at Kootenay hatchery

The hatchery has lost close to 150 fish in the past several months

B.C. church’s Pride flag defaced for second time in 12 days

Delta’s Ladner United Church says it will continue to fly the flag for Pride month

Most Read