ISS 2016: Imagining a World of Adventure & Inclusion

VANCOUVER, B.C. — The keynote speaker at the 2016 International Seating Symposium (ISS) once disembarked an elephant in Nepal by transferring to a haystack approximately the same height, then sliding to the ground, where her wheelchair waited.

“I looked like a scarecrow, with hay all over me,” said Linda McGowan, who graduated from the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing with a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

McGowan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1983. But she told ISS attendees at the Westin Bayshore that she (and her chair) were once carried up Nepal’s Annapurna mountain by sherpas. She’s observed penguins on the Falkland Islands, and explored the Great Wall of China on foot and by chair.

She also remembers mentoring a woman who was a new wheelchair user and had a seemingly much more modest dream: to sip a cup of coffee at Tim Hortons, a Canadian fast-food restaurant.

McGowan’s account was the perfect tie-in for the 32nd ISS’s theme: Imagine the Possibilities. Throughout the annual symposium, seating & wheeled mobility clinicians and assistive technology providers discussed the contrast between what their clients wanted and the challenges that stood in the way. Some of those challenges were physical limitations that interfered with mobility and threatened quality of life. Other challenges were related to lack of funding, while still others were related to expectations of what someone with a disability should hope to accomplish or dare to dream of.

“What a Difference You Are Making”

Pre-symposium educational sessions started on Tues., March 1, and the exhibit hall also opened that afternoon, free of charge for all attendees. The ISS officially began Wed., March 2, as co-chairs Dave Cooper and Maureen Story, both from Vancouver’s Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children, welcomed more than 1,000 participants from 24 countries.

Also on hand to greet attendees was Carla Qualtrough, Canada’s Minister of Sport & Persons with Disabilities. Qualtrough, who has been visually impaired since birth, is a two-time Canadian Paralympian, former president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, and an attorney who has specialized in human rights issues.

“What a difference you are making,” Qualtrough told attendees assembled on Wednesday morning. She said, “Accessibility is paramount to everyone with disabilities,” but added that people with disabilities frequently must face obstacles that shouldn’t exist.

“We can be leaders in inclusion,” Qualtrough said. “The possibilities are endless. Everyone has the right to access and full involvement.”

She also advocated for a Canadians with Disabilities Act — legislation that Canada currently doesn’t have. As an attorney, Qualtrough cited her frustration over the current legal landscape: “You have to wait for people to be discriminated against,” she noted. Qualtrough said comprehensive legislation protecting the rights of those with disabilities and advocating inclusion for all is necessary.

“This is our chance,” she said, “to change the world.”

Ingenuity, Fear & Victory

From Wednesday through Friday morning, attendees took advantage of a number of educational opportunities, ranging from plenaries to paper sessions to poster presentations and full-length instructional sessions.

In the exhibit hall, assistive technology manufacturers built on the educational session themes of inclusion and discovery by showing off seating, positioning, manual mobility and power mobility systems that would have seemed like wishful thinking to the 98 participants of the first ISS back in 1983. Wheelchair backrests and standing technology — in the forms of standing frames, standing wheelchairs and gait trainers — were the technology segments getting the most attention via new product introductions.

Linda McGowan’s keynote address brought balance to all the shiny new technology by reminding ISS participants of the human side of the equation. “A disability will drop in and stop [people] in their tracks,” she said. “Accessibility is different things to different people; it’s a personal thing.” Noting that accessibility starts at home, McGowan told of learning to press both the up and down buttons when calling an elevator to make sure she and her wheelchair wouldn’t be shut out by lack of room in the elevator car. She said her father once helped her host Christmas dinner for friends by delivering the entire meal beforehand, already cooked and frozen, plus a supply of essential oil that smelled like roasting turkey. McGowan fooled her guests by lighting up the essential oil, then heating up the actual meal.

As attendees enjoyed that story, McGowan said, “MS does not mean I discard my dreams. It means I approach them with more ingenuity.”

As for the woman who wanted coffee at Tim Hortons: McGowan escorted her to the restaurant the first two times to teach the woman how to use public transportation via her new wheelchair. A few weeks later, the woman called McGowan back to announce she’d gone to Tim Hortons all by herself without any problems at all.

“Feel the fear,” McGowan told attendees. “And do it anyway.”

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at

Mobility Management Podcast