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Voices of the Voiceless: Man with spina bifida just wants ‘a little respect’

Twenty-seven-year-old Michael Mifflin was born with spina bifida, a condition that has left him paralyzed below the waist.

Disrespect is nothing new for Michael Mifflin, who was born with spina bifida.

In high school in Winnipeg, he was shoved into lockers and had his canes stolen and hidden by other students.

As an adult, he navigates public transit with canes and a wheelchair, an effort sometimes greeted with impatient eye-rolling and complaints from comfortably-seated transit users.

Mifflin’s birth defect left several spinal vertebrae deformed, consequently exposing and damaging parts of the spinal cord. This resulted in limited brain signals to muscles and body organs below the damaged area.

Mifflin is paralyzed below the waist, a condition that does not improve with age.

 “With age, it gets you,” he says. “It’s catching up to me. Most doctors are surprised to hear that I’m 27 and I’m still around. Doctors said that I shouldn’t have made the age of 2 because of my disability.”

Frequent bullying in high school prompted Mifflin to drop out before graduation. He is currently taking the remaining classes required to obtain the high school diploma that he was denied by a misinformed student body.

Mifflin says even those who intend to help are ignorant to what physically disabled people truly need. He says those who wish to assist him when his wheelchair is stuck, or when he is trying to fit his wheelchair into the locks on a bus, do not understand that people with disabilities require a degree of independence.

 “Many people just assume that I need the help when I don’t,” Mifflin explains. “All I want is a little respect. If you see I’m having trouble, it’s OK to help, but ask first.”

Cory Funk, former respite worker and Summer Program Director for Camps With Meaning, affirms Mifflin’s desire for independence. In an interview, Funk describes working with a man with cerebral palsy.

Mifflin’s girlfriend, Emily Wiebe, says the most important aspect of accommodating people with disabilities is accepting them.

 “Respecting [the person’s] autonomy is huge,” Funk says.

“A lot of people with disabilities, their goal is to be as independent as possible. When interacting with someone with a physical disability, whether in a working environment or on the streets, it’s important to understand that they’re pursuing that independence.”

The pursuit of independence is evident with Mifflin, who asks little of others (besides respect), and is highly active in the local power wheelchair hockey scene.

His team, The Red Bulls, is currently 18-0 in the Manitoba Power Wheelchair Hockey Association. Mifflin plays power forward and has been a significant part of the team’s success over the last eight seasons.

He has also taken part in wheelchair basketball and sledge hockey.

These modified sports provide a sense of independence for participants, and illustrate that physically disabled people are capable of doing things for themselves.

Mifflin claims that attitude changes are the main force in achieving respect for disabled people.

“Attitudes are truly the biggest disability of all. People need to change attitudes towards people like myself if disabled people stand a chance to be properly integrated into society.”

Though there is legislation and other structures in place to help the physically disabled in Winnipeg, Mifflin’s girlfriend, Emily Wiebe, says the most important aspect of accommodation is the acceptance of others.

“You can modify a building to be accessible all you want, but if you have a negative attitude toward the disabled, then it isn’t really all that helpful,” Wiebe says.

“The biggest barrier is not an inaccessible building—it is an inaccessible attitude.”

Michael Wiebe is a student at Canadian Mennonite University and the brother of Emily Wiebe, the girlfriend of Michael Mifflin. Michael Wiebe wrote this article as part of his work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community.