From para-athlete to advocate: Tony Flores is Alberta’s new disability advocate

‘The role is simply a voice for our community’

Tony Flores has been named the province’s first Advocate for Persons with Disabilities. He competed for years in Para-Nordic skiing. Tony Flores supplied photo

CBC News Edmonton November 02, 2018

The weather was frigid, the sky was blue and Tony Flores was drinking in his surroundings on the cross-country ski course.

From his position, the icy white snow was right in his face and contrasted against the brown tree trunks that lined the trails.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I’m the only Filipino guy with a disability who is cross-country skiing in the world!'” Flores said, with a laugh on Friday. “I thought it was a really cool thing.”

Flores — who moved to Canada at 18-years-old — has no use of his right leg and was seated in a sit-ski, a special chair that attaches to skis. He has competed at elite levels for years in the sitting category for cross-country skiing.

Now, Flores is taking on a new challenge as the province’s first Advocate for Persons with Disabilities.

He says the role is about ensuring equal opportunities for people with disabilities, and believes the lessons he learned in sports will translate well.

Tony Flores trained regularly at the Strathcona Wilderness Centre, and is now taking on a new challenge as the province’s Advocate for Persons with Disabilities. Tony Flores supplied photo

“Sport teaches you about discipline; it teaches you about courage; it teaches you about respect; it teaches about equality,” he said on CBC Radio Active.

“All of these ingredients empower you to overcome adversity…and to reach your full potential and live a fulfilling life.”

The new advocacy office is slated to open later this month. Flores will represent a broad community of individuals, from people with cognitive impairments to people with physical disabilities.

He knows the needs are tremendous — from tackling the problem of affordable housing in Edmonton’s inner city for people with mental disabilities to assisting those who need help to access the right services. For a wheelchair user like Flores, even an issue like lengthy waits to replace a wheelchair cushion is worth exploring.

“The role is simply a voice for our community,” he said. “As an advocate, I need to hear what their experiences are and put forth recommendations to the decision makers to say these are the challenges and these are the issues that need change.”

‘I think we can do much better’
Flores was just one-year-old when he got polio. He lost the use of his right leg, and part of the functionality in his left leg.

When he moved to Canada with his parents as a teenager, he quickly learned the hazards of navigating icy sidewalks in winter or trying to get a wheelchair onto a curb covered in snow.

“Coming from my home country in the Philippines, there are limited resources. Living here, there are a lot of resources. The infrastructure is already there but it’s just a matter of changing the way we think,” he said.

“I think we can do much better. This country is amazing… it’s a matter of tweaking things.”

Flores uses a wheelchair and crutches interchangeably. The wheelchair provides ease of movement across big distances, like an airport or even in his office, where he can place files on his lap. But he also likes to use his crutches to keep his left leg active and healthy.

We have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. What is it like to sit in a wheelchair? — Tony Flores

He thinks many people just need a sense of the daily challenges that people with disabilities face.

“We have to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. What is it like to sit in a wheelchair? Or to cross the street if you’re visually impaired?”

After finishing his undergraduate studies in economics and political science at the University of Alberta, Flores one day ended up at a fitness centre on campus. He weighed less than a hundred pounds and wanted to do some basic weight training.

He soon ran into two wheelchair athletes who encouraged him to pick up the sport. Flores insisted he was only there to workout with weights but, months later, accepted their suggestion.

“I tried it out, started training with them. And they changed my life,” he said.

Flores has competed as a wheelchair racer, in para-nordic skiing, and was a member of the national para-canoe team from 2009 to 2013.

“At first it’s just fun. Then you realize the benefit of fitness, especially for a person with a disability.”

Source CBC News Edmonton

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