The kindergarten kids at Tom Thomson PS are ready to leave for the day and Hanno Weinberger is a busy man. Many children need help with their jackets, a few have misplaced either their gloves or their caps, and one particular child has decided to use the washroom at the last minute. As parents troop into the yard, Weinberger lets the children out one by one, hitting a power button by the door, his crutches ﬁrmly under his arms as he bids goodbye to his wards.
Weinberger is doing what he loves best– teaching kindergarten children. Just three years ago, he thought he might never be able to teach again, or for that matter, walk again. On a holiday in Germany, where he had gone to attend a family wedding, he woke up one day to ﬁnd that he could not move. A type of West Nile virus had paralyzed him. Overnight, the 50-year-old Halton teacher turned from a healthy being into a disabled person.
Till then, Weinberger had lived life in the fast lane. He was on the Halton Teacher Local executive from its inception, having been a member of the transition team when OPSTF and FWTAO got together to form ETFO. He had served on the Human Rights Committee, the Status of Men Committee,and several ad hoc committees. (His wife, Maureen Weinberger, currently president of the Halton Teacher Local, was just as involved in union activities.) He had been teaching for 30 years, the last 13 as a kindergarten teacher. It was a job he loved, one that kept him on his toes every single minute of the day. But now, life had come to a standstill– wrapped around a wheelchair and a pair of crutches.
Everything changed, every aspect of my life. When I ﬁrst came home after a month in the hospital, I couldn’t have a shower on my own. Someone had to be there to get me on to the bath seat and out of the bath seat. I couldn’t go up and down the stairs. I had to sit there and go up on my bum and slide down on my bum,” Weinberger says. The most horriﬁc aspect of his ordeal was his complete dependence on others for the basic needs of daily life. “I was 50 years old when this happened to me, a father of three children. My wife had to help me in and out of the shower. As a parent, it was horrifying to show that level of weakness to my children,” Weinberger says. What added to the trauma was the fact that his disease was not diagnosed till August last year. “I didn’t know if I would get better or if the disease was degenerative and would continue to get worse.”
The tremendous support he received from his family, friends, colleagues, and his union local took some of the edge off his ordeal. “My wife has always been there for me. When this happened to me, her attitude was: get better, come home, and we will deal with whatever has to be dealt with, together.” The road to recovery was slow and often frustrating, but Weinberger did not give up, helped along by his physiotherapists and kinesiologists. Once he was able to get around in a wheelchair, he decided to return to part-time teaching at Tom Thomson.
“Teaching KG is a very physical job and I was advised to teach older kids so I could sit in a chair the whole time. But I felt that KG is what I love doing and I couldn’t give it up without a try. The kids I started out with in the ﬁrst year were incredible with me. They were understanding, supportive, and they never treated me any differently than how I was getting treated before. I let them know from the very beginning that their legs work in a certain way and mine don’t work that way. Because of that I have a wheelchair, because of that I have braces or crutches,” he says.
As a teacher, Weinberger had always integrated special needs children in his class. “In many ways, now I feel they are accommodating me, a special needs teacher, into their ranks. I ﬁnd they do not see me as disabled and they do not look at me any differently than they do any other teacher in the school,” he says.
The transition to disability changed Weinberger's physical realities, but it also made him realize his own inner strength. All through his illness, he was supported by others, and once he had recovered sufﬁciently, he wanted to give back some of what he had received. He became a member of the Disability Issues Committee of ETFO and is currently its chairperson. “I feel I have something to offer and that I can be a voice for a group of people who may be needing an advocate. I had an advocate when I needed one, when I was physically incapable of ﬁghting for myself. HopefullyI can advocate for others now.”
Weinberger is keen to reject the stereotyping of a disabled activist as a person who brings only a single point of view to the table. “It is completely conceivable that what I have gone through would have narrowed my focus on just me and my obstacles but it hasn’t done that. To the contrary, my disability has broadened by perspective. I sit on the Disability Issues Committee but I sit on many other committees in Halton. I don’t see myself as the voice of disability on these committees. My disability is part of who I am but it is not all of me. It doesn’t totally deﬁne me.”
Weinberger attributes the defeat at the annual meeting of Resolution 5, which sought designated positions on the ETFO executive, to the inability of people to understand that representatives on these positions won’t bring only one point of view or perspective to the table. “I don’t want other people to see me as just being that disabled person on that executive who is only going to be a voice for that disability. That’s just a part of who I am. I bring a much broader focus, a much broader range to anything I do now than I did before because of what I have experienced in the last three years. People need to see that those who represent designated groups are more than a disabled person, or a black person or a gay person. We are more than that and you need to see we are more than that. That’s the message which we on the Disability Issues Committee and other equity-seeking committees are trying to put forward,” he says. Even though he is on crutches and even though there are days when the inequities of life all but overwhelm him, Weinberger is determined to make the world of the disabled a better place than when he found it. In addition to his union activities, he has helped the students of orthotics and technicians at Sunnybrook Hospital design a leg brace.
“This experience has strengthened the positive aspects of my personality. I have a level of peace and a level of calm that I have worked very hard over the past few years to achieve. As much as I would love to walk again, if walking meant giving up the experiences of the last three years, of what I learnt about myself, and of the many positive things which have happened to me, if that were the tradeoff, I would not do it.”