Monday, May 13, 2013

Wide involvement means busy schedule for Ferguson

By Rosalie MacEachern (Reprinted from THE NEWS Saturday, May 11,2013) with permission from the author.

"I'm having fun and I owe a lot to Anne for her support and she's also my driver. I don't think of what I do as advocacy, I think of it as education." - Ralph Ferguson

When Ralph Ferguson of Pictou addressed a standing committee of the Nova Scotia legislature earlier this week, he had a lot to say.

"Nothing about us without us," was one of the messages he delivered on behalf of Nova Scotians with disabilities.

Ferguson, chair of The Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities, also tried to draw provincial attention to the fact that disability increases significantly with aging and the number of people over 65 in rural Nova Scotia is predicted to double by 2026.

About 20 per cent of Nova Scotians – roughly the population of Hants, Cumberland, Colchester,Pictou and Antigonish counties - are identified as having some disability. ... Continued

Disability is something Ferguson is intimately acquainted with since having polio as a young child in Glace Bay. He got around on crutches until post-polio syndrome struck him in his late 40s and he now manages a busy schedule from his wheelchair. Aside from a career in the public service, he's been a national title-winning wheelchair basketball player, a local country music television performer, a municipal politician and a website designer.

Ferguson was in law school when his father, a crown prosecutor, was killed in a car accident.

"I thought I wanted to go to Duke University and become a psychologist but he wanted me to be a lawyer. In fact, he told me if I wanted to be a psychologist I could pay for that myself so I went along to law school, but my heart wasn't in it and I gave it up after he died."

Instead, he took a job as a federal employment counsellor which he contends was not too far a stretch from the field of psychology. He worked in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick before being promoted to a job in New Glasgow and later moving to the Pictou office.

"My wife Anne is also from Glace Bay. We got married and both worked in New Brunswick for a few years. An opportunity opened up in New Glasgow and I got the position. To be honest, I thought I was working my way back home at the time," he said.

Ferguson and his wife arrived on a week-long house-hunting mission soon after all available housing had been taken up by new Scott Paper and Michelin Tire employees.

"We left our two year-old in Cape Breton and had the new baby with us at the Tara Motel, driving all over the county trying to find a place. We had just decided to forget the job and go back to New Brunswick when we got a call asking if we'd look at a house that had just come on the market in Pictou," he said.

The Fergusons paid $25,500 for a four-bedroom home "with potential" near schools and across from a park. Over the years they renovated, raised three children and still live there today, the long wheelchair ramp they added now being the favourite feature for visiting young grandchildren.

As an employment counsellor Ferguson and others concluded the federal government was not doing very well by people with disabilities.
"They might place 10 people a year. It was pathetic so the idea the communities might do a better job was pretty interesting to me," he said, recalling the formation of the Pictou County Disability Partnership and the Central Highlands Association of the Disabled.

"The Kinsmen Club and CHAD came to me looking for funding to buy a bus. I felt it could be funded under a particular program so I approved it. Then I caught jolly hell from my supervisors because I was the only one who read it that way. They forgave me instead of firing me and it was the most wonderful mistake I ever made," he said.

Since then Ferguson has served on a wide variety of agencies and 15 years as a town councillor. He has also been part of countless initiatives which have provided access for the disabled including recreational opportunities such as stick curling and wheelchair archery.

"Right now I'm part of a community garden project and the plan is for this project to have some raised beds. If I wasn't on the committee, I don't know if people would appreciate the need for some raised beds," he said, adding he likes to think of himself as a catalyst.

Ferguson does not see his efforts on behalf of the disabled as labour.

"I'm having fun and I owe a lot to Anne for her support and she's also my driver. I don't think of what I do as advocacy, I think of it as education."

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