Local author reflects upon a life of caretaking

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Donna Thomson, the author of The Four Walls of My Freedom.
Photo by Al Goyette

Donna Thomson, the author of The Four Walls of My Freedom, launched an updated paperback edition at Dovercourt Recreation Centre on January 23. The new edition features two new chapters.

Her thought-provoking book reflects on a life given to the care of a severely disabled son, Nicolas, but is also a plea for people to change how individuals and society view the disabled and elderly. Four Walls questions Canadian society’s view of value, which is too often measured by what we earn or accomplish, not by who we are or what we can learn from each other.

One never gets the sense that Thomson views her life as “tragic;” rather, as readers we are privy to her pathway to hope and freedom.

“It would have been tragic if Nicolas had died,” she says.

Thomson describes the isolation of those initial years caring for Nicolas who was born in 1988 with cerebral palsy, requiring 24-hour-a-day care.

“We were social pariahs. Our family situation was so extreme; this made it difficult to talk to people or to respond to the question ‘How was your day?’” says Thomson.

When Nicolas was 11 years old, Thomson heard about Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN), an organization whose central purpose is the creation of networks of support for families and friends dealing with a disabled family member or friend.

Thomson co-founded Lifetime Networks Ottawa, working with disabled individuals and their families to create personal support networks.

In 2008, Thomson discovered the writings of Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and a Nobel laureate who is known for his theories of social justice.

His philosophy – termed the “Capability Approach”– is defined by “its choice of focus upon the moral significance of individuals’ capability of achieving the kind of lives they have reason to value.” The idea changed her life.

“It was a true epiphany for me,” says Thomson.

Thomson had already read extensively before she encountered Sen, “looking for ideas from developing countries where a lot of creativity was evident.”

Donna Thomson with son Nicolas
Donna Thomson and her son Nicolas.

Thomson says she grew up in a family where her father “instilled values of fairness and social justice.” Her mother worked in a time when most mothers stayed home with their kids.

Thomson and her sister both have backgrounds in the arts, her sister as a painter. Donna Thomson says she has “always been interested in meaningful narrative, work that pushes the boundaries and/or story telling to provoke changes in thinking.”

She obtained a bachelor of fine arts in theatre at Concordia, and then a degree in education from the University of Ottawa. Thomson worked as an actor, director, and teacher before the birth of her son.

“I’d like [people] to know that dependency is not a bad word,” says Thomson. “Issues of caretaking should be dinner table conversation, so let’s talk about it,” she adds, pointing out that a “major shift” needs to take place.

“In the future, we’ll all be looking after each other. Seniors will be looking after seniors in my generation,” she adds. “I wonder how the next generation will handle it. Are we losing the knowledge base on how to care for each other?”

In 2005, Thomson’s son Nicolas Wright won the Academic Perseverance Award from Notre Dame High School. In his acceptance speech Nicolas said:

“I will never give up in school because, frankly, I’m just too curious and excited to find out what is going to happen next in each of my classes. Some people call this having a positive attitude; I call it wanting to express my opinions. I have opinions in my personal life, my school, and my community and my country. And if I want people to hear my opinions, I know I have to be involved.”

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