RAD founder Tanelle Bolt is on a mission to make the world accessible to everyone.
BY DAVID LENNAM
You’re too pretty to be in a wheelchair. You’re too fit to be in a wheelchair.
Tanelle Bolt hears it all the time. Sure, the 36-year-old paraplegic is both attractive and in athlete’s shape, but the relentless commentary can be overwhelming.
“You can’t notice that stuff, it’ll drive you mad,” she says.
It’s a challenge to pretend she’s immune to these perceptions: the words, the staring, the uninvited approaches. But since a catastrophic accident nine years ago left her using a wheelchair, Bolt has plugged her electric dynamism into helping others with mobility issues as advocate, consultant and, often, as unsolicited mentor.
“My inbox, my phone … every day. It’s over a full-time job,” she says. “It’s OK when someone approaches me and my time respectfully … but I don’t have time to have somebody be entitled to my time, my knowledge. I get a lot of, ‘Can you call me right now? I’m having a bad day,’ from some stranger on the other side of the planet.”
And, she adds, that all comes down to an almost complete lack of resources for the mental health and well-being of the disabled, no matter the disability. As she points out, “Nobody in the hospital comes up to you and says, ‘Here is a grief-recovery handbook.’ ”
Bolt is frustrated, mostly, by the lack of accessibility wheelchair users are granted.
“I cry, probably, daily. Every time I have to leave the house,” she says. “[People with disabilities] get sick of trying to ask for things that are their rights. So this is how I’ve ended up in the space of consulting and advocacy.”
A Dreadful Impact
Summer 2014. A 27-year-old Bolt is perched atop the Gordon River Bridge near Avatar Grove, she and two of her pals, 20 metres above the river. She throws off her flip-flops, counts, “One, two, three … go,” and then throws herself off.
Those last words, uttered with nervous energy, turned out to be a countdown, an unwitting lead-in to how her life would be lived from that moment on.
Bolt hit the water, feet first, and felt the feeling depart her body.
Her back was broken in two places, her T5 and T6, as well as her sternum, two ribs and 14 spinous processes, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down.
Before the accident, Bolt was beyond fit and perhaps a few rungs beyond brave. She was a hard-core “recreationer,” as she puts it. “I’d pack my truck full of all the girls in the middle of the week, and drive up-Island. ‘We’re going to the lake, get all your stuff in here. If you’re not coming, I’m going by myself.’ ”
A ripped and tanned fitness model who would turn heads not just for her appearance, but for derring-do snowboarding, trail running and “everything at the lake,” Bolt was just that: a bolt of electric performance.
She ran her own interior design company, slipped on a tool belt and worked the trades (excavating, concrete work, framing, finishing, drove truck, had her crane operator’s ticket), tended bar, powered up for fitness competitions and threw herself fully into all of it.
“I thought I should ensure that I can do every job that I was managing,” Bolt says. “Otherwise who are you to tell anybody anything? Especially when you look 12 and you’re a girl in a dude’s world. I’m bringing my pink hard hat and I’m doing the job better than you.”
She was hard at it seven days a week before she took one weekend off, went to Port Renfrew and leapt from a bridge. “It was the first weekend I’d had off in the summertime in four years,” she recalls.
A self-described classic cynic, Bolt speaks very directly, a bit of a suffer-no-fools in her voice. “I was cynical before based on assumption and now I’m cynical based on facts,” she says drily. She’s intense, but smiles a lot and doesn’t hide a refreshing sarcasm and humour. Without her sense of humour, she notes, “I’d be grey and negative and down.”
Her attitude has helped her help others. She founded the non-profit RAD (Recreation Adapted Society), which rents and loans sit skis, surfboards, handcycles, ParaGolfers and other gear that makes the outdoors accessible to those with disabilities across B.C. But this specialized equipment can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which means constant fundraising.
As if that isn’t enough to keep Bolt busy, she also has her own YouTube channel offering pro tips for those in wheelchairs and she’s not lost much of that “recreationer” spirit. She’s the nation’s first female wheelchair bodybuilder, a medal winner in adaptive surfing and was for a while Canada’s only competitive paraplegic golfer.
And now, under her Bolt Ventures initiative, she’s advocating for barrier-free access. Everywhere.
“We don’t need to redesign the world, but let’s start doing right from now. Let’s stop building barriers into things now. We don’t have to fix all the problems we’ve created right now, but let’s not build any more problems.”
Those barriers can be as innocuous as a sprinkler head set too low, creating a divot in the grass that will abruptly stop a wheelchair and dump its user out. They could be doors that have no push-button openers or bathrooms without wide-enough entries or bars to grip onto. A million little things.
“We could go through every building, everything,” she says. “Mobility challenges are simple. If we didn’t build barriers into our infrastructure, mobility challenges wouldn’t be challenges … and they’re simple because they’re visible a lot of the time.”
Every new home should be retrofitted for accessibility, she says. Entire planned neighbourhoods should be universally designed communities.
Bolt suggests that if the able-bodied experienced life in a wheelchair — even for a day — that would result in massive change. Councillors, engineers, planners and public works staff should spend a day as she does.
“In and out of your vehicle, you have to find parking, you have to open doors, you have to get into a bathroom with your chair, all the way to the toilet. How many times have I peed with the door open in public? More times than I could count. Or beside strangers on airplanes because of turbulence. Barriers are everywhere,” she says.
And if you think this doesn’t affect you, think again. As Bolt points out, “We’re all one circumstance away from disability — and we’re all aging into it.”
Just as we’re ending our chat in a Langford coffee shop, a young woman with a cane and some obvious difficulty walking starts up a conversation with Bolt. As it becomes a long reveal of this woman’s health issues and challenges, Bolt listens, asks questions and offers a bit of advice.
When we’re out on the street, Bolt turns to me.
“That’s every day,” she says. “Put your game face on if you want to leave the house, and smile, and go try to change people’s perspectives.”