Over the years I have met so many people that have defeated the odds stacked against them and I’ve witnessed the incredible achievements that these individuals have reached, despite their critical onlookers. A lot of these individuals are persons with disabilities and rarely do these disabilities keep them from aiming high and proving their onlookers wrong.
I can’t help but wonder why, in this day and age, is the world still so critical of persons with disabilities and their ability to achieve great things? Throughout history we have seen it over and over again, yet over and over again these amazing people face ridicule and negativity that is disguised as “facing reality.”
Maybe it’s time for the world to realize that reality for each individual is relative. That you can achieve the unthinkable if you dream big.
Jennifer Tourangeau’s is one of those remarkable people with a big story. I met Jennifer at an art gallery opening and loved her confidence as she held out her hand and introduced herself and a Bachelor of Fine Art’s student at the college.
I asked her in during our first meeting, “What inspired her art work,” and that was when she disclosed her story of living with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder or FASD refers to a complex range of brain injuries that can result from prenatal exposure to alcohol.
It is an umbrella term that has evolved over time and is used to denote an array of developmental, physical, learning and behavioural conditions.
Jennifer was once told by a doctor that there was little hope for her but she ignored those statements and became determined to find a way to make her dreams happen no matter what. In the beginning of her journey as an art student she created the music video, “Dream Big and she tries daily to live by the phrase, “I’m going to do it, watch me.”
And do it she has. Jennifer has been the recipient of a number of awards including two from Spirit Seekers as a Youth Role Model, as well as a 7 Sacred Teaching Award from National Aboriginal Day 2010.
I caught up with Jennifer and her extremely supportive partner Mary, to talk to her about all she has accomplished and how she likes to inspire others with her art work and her powerful story.
Me: I got to see your video, “Dream Big” and it’s incredibly inspiring. Can you tell my readers what the video is about?
Jennifer: The original concept came from when I heard the song a couple of years ago. It’s by Pauley Perrette who is one of my favorite actresses from the show NCIS. She has a way of touching you with her lyrics. It’s about being able to achieve great things regardless of whatever has been thrown in your path. When I listen to it I always have the vision of someone struggling and coming out the other side a more positive person. Whether it’s inspiring others or achieving something they wanted.
When I created the video I thought about the college and the struggles we go through as college students. We finish high school and we have dreams of what we want to do in life.
There are a lot of us that come from smaller communities, especially from the North West Territories, and it’s our first time in the big city. Many of the people in these communities don’t finish school, there is a large majority of people who don’t complete it. The alcohol, drugs and abuse are a vicious cycle and a pattern that you often see unfortunately.
When I graduated in 1999, out of the 10 or 20 potential grade twelve students, only four of them graduated. A lot of the youth end up using alcohol because that’s what they know. The town is trying to change. When I was growing up there is no high school in communities like Lutsel Ké , they had to go to Yellowknife or Fort Smith to complete their schooling. The youth are far away from home. I wouldn’t say it’s like Res idential School at all, but it is hard for them to be separate from what they know.
Me: Were your communities effected by Residential Schools?
Jennifer: Yes, very much so. You can see the impact, especially in the smaller communities. It’s generational, and there is alcohol problems and bootlegging especially where there they are supposed to be dry towns but they’re not. The sexual abuse is also still running ramped.
There is a change going on there, it’s slow unfortunately but no change is fast. It’s going to take a long time, even with the Truth & Reconciliation Act. It will take a long time for those wounds to finally heal. I don’t think that it will ever go away, it’s a matter of trying to show the youth that there is another way.
They are not stuck in that place. You don’t have to be stuck. You do have the choice of leaving. As much as you may not want to, it may be the best thing because once you are out of that you will have the chance to become more. Anything is possible.
Me: So that is where the inspiration for Dream Big came from?
Jennifer: Yes! It was directed towards the youth, especially the smaller communities.
Me: I think that is so powerful! People don’t realize, especially when watching a video like that, how much it can make an impact on a youth. When you say, “Look, I have succeeded! I am succeeding and you can do it as well!” That is the light that is needed in people’s lives when they just need a glimmer of hope.
Jennifer: Aside from that you also need the support. You need the support of your community and your family, and others who may not be your family. That was part of the other message, that there are supports. Through your lifetime they are there and accessing them is worth your while.
Me: How would you like to see your artwork progress in the next five years?
Jennifer: There is a twenty piece series that I am slowly creating. I know what I want it to look like it’s just a matter of getting it onto the canvas. It’s called, “Take it to the Top” which depicts a visual representation of what it’s like for me as a person living with FASD and the struggles and triumphs I’ve gone through.
I’m hoping, with how it evolves, that it sheds a positive light on people with FASD and the fact that the books have got it wrong.
Me: What do the books say?
Jennfier: A lot of them basically say that people with FASD end up on the streets, homeless, in alcoholic situations, sexual promiscuity, but that is all the stigma associated with it. You don’t really hear the success stories about those who have overcome the odds. A lot of the information you get is from the professionals and they are the experts, you don’t really hear from the people themselves around what it’s actually like.
It’s sort of inspirational in making people realize that I’m not my disability and this what I have done to get here and it’s not over yet!
Me: When I met you at the art gallery opening I asked you the cliché question, “What inspires your work?” The things is, the answers I get from people are so diverse and quite incredible. Can you talk to me a little bit about what inspires your work?
(Painting by Jennifer Tourangeau 2010)
Jennifer: It varies. It’s a combination between my personal life, my Aboriginal heritage, it varies really.
Me: You mention that a lot of your personal experiences inspires your work. Can you talk about any particular experiences that come to mind?
Jennifer: I guess one of the major ones would be having a disability and being told continuously, “You won’t, can’t, shouldn’t.” All the professionals, including a psychiatrist I had as a child, told my mother not to have any high expectations for me because I won’t make it. I took that attitude and just turned it around.
It’s a lot of support too! People telling you to keep going. My fiancé Mary is my biggest support, she will push me continuously. I will say, “Can I give up yet?” and she will say, “No, you have to keep going!” She’s always had my back. I remember staying up 36 hours for one project trying to finish it and she stayed up with me and helped.
Me: Tell me about your disability.
Jennifer: I have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder which is a permanent brain injury that affects me in a lot of different ways. For example, sometimes in social interactions I don’t see the social cues or I misread something in the situation. Being able to figure something out where I should know it but my memory, trying to recall various things, such as Mary telling me something a week ago and expecting me to remember it.
Me: I like how you said that people would tell you that you “Couldn’t” or “You can’t” or “Never.” That seems to be a common theme in the lives of people with disabilities but yet we all seem to shine really bright. What kind of advice would you give young people who are being told the same thing?
Jennifer: Don’t give up! You shouldn’t have to try to prove to other people that you can do it, you need to prove it to yourself! I used to care about what other people thought but now I don’t care, I am who I am and I am not going to change the way I present myself to other just for the sake of society.
Yes, I have FASD, but isn’t who I am. It’s a disability I have but it doesn’t make who I am is me, and that’s it!
Bear Paw Strength & Wolf Paw Wisdom
by Jennifer Tourangeau
You can follow Jennifer @thegpbunny