By Dan Rubinstein
Photos by Chris Roussakis

Last year, amid all the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant milestone slipped by quietly.

Carleton University’s Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities (PMC)—the root of Carleton’s reputation as the most accessible university in Canada and possibly the world—celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Paul Menton, the centre’s namesake, was a quadriplegic Carleton graduate who, in 1981, took on a half-time disability co-ordinator role at the university, the first paid position on campus that addressed the need for additional services and improved accessibility for people with disabilities.

A year later, Menton asked his friend Larry McCloskey to take over the job. Menton passed away of liver cancer at age 37 in May 1989, and eight months later the PMC opened, with McCloskey serving as its founding director, a role he still holds with a portfolio that has grown to include an array of accessibility and academic support services and programs.

This brief chronology barely skims the surface of what the PMC is and does, and it doesn’t delve into the complex and surprising lives of the people who have passed through its doors. That’s one of the reasons McCloskey, who has master’s degrees in Social Work and Canadian Studies from Carleton and is an accomplished author, published his eighth book this spring.

Inarticulate Speech of the Heart is both a memoir and a de facto oral history of the PMC, introducing readers to several of the women and men McCloskey has worked with and been inspired by over the years.

“I know it’s a cliché to say that I get more than I give, but I absolutely feel that way,” McCloskey says about his three-plus decades at the PMC.

“When I was a grad student, I needed a job and got a part-time gig as an orderly in the spinal cord of a rehabilitation centre. That job became my vocation and the Paul Menton Centre became my home.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings about people with disabilities,” he adds. “Writing this book is one of the ways that I could try to show the truth.”

Larry McCloskey

Celebrating the Spirit of Paul Menton

Each chapter in Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, whose title was taken from the Van Morrison album of the same name, revolves around a few of the people McCloskey got to know through the PMC and Carleton.

Like Paul Menton, many of them died young.

By writing about his relationships with them, McCloskey is providing context, so readers get a deeper sense of the myriad dimensions of their lives—and of his own attempt to find meaning in the swirl of experiences and emotions.

Larry McCloskey

Larry McCloskey

One chapter in the book, which won the 2020 Best New Canadian Unpublished Manuscript Award from the Word Guild, focuses on Menton.

McCloskey details a rollicking road trip that Menton took with his two brothers in 1976: a six-week drive from Ottawa to the Pacific Ocean and back, his wheelchair crammed into a decrepit Volkswagen van with all their sleeping gear. The brothers stopped to swim in icy rivers, took the occasional shower in motel rooms, and worried their mother sick until returning home. A photo from that trip is on the book’s cover.

Beyond celebrating Menton’s spirit, McCloskey also shows how Menton helped others, such as the time Menton took it upon himself to travel to and set up camp at the psychological low point 20 miles into a difficult marathon that McCloskey was running, so Menton could cheer on his friend as he briefly passed by.

Paul Norman Menton

Paul Norman Menton

“In counselling psychology, that sweet spot optimal for best outcomes is dependent upon the establishment of a therapeutic alliance,” McCloskey writes.

“That alliance is primarily a one-way benefit from therapist to client. Occasionally—and yes, shockingly even between guys—it is possible to create a two-way therapeutic alliance, that is real friendship, support and deep mutual understanding.”

The cast of characters we meet in Inarticulate Speech of the Heart includes blind Canadian musician Jeff Healy, champion freestyle skier Mike Nemesvary (who broke his neck in a trampoline training accident and then became the first quadriplegic to drive around the world), a long list of Carleton students, and longtime PMC staff member Janice Elliott, who got married in a moving ceremony on campus not long before dying of cancer.

McCloskey’s voice is the thread that ties their stories together.

“Life is how you meet who you greet along your path,” he says.

“For all of the complexities wrapped up in how we spend our days, there’s a simplicity that can changes things: when you pass by somebody on the street who might be struggling, don’t disparage them—picture yourself there. We’re all kind of messed up, trying to remake ourselves and seek redemption. You get a little peace of mind and a sense of purpose by helping others.”

Larry McCloskey

More Stories

Monday, May 31, 2021 in , ,
Share: Twitter, Facebook