OKOTOKS, Alta. – In 2019, Zak Madell – Canada’s scoring machine on the national wheelchair rugby team – earned a diploma in architectural technology from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.
It is a first chapter in a career he plans to pursue with a particular goal to make life more accessible for people with a disability.
“Architecture has always been a passion,” said Madell, 28, who lost his fingers and legs to a septic staph infection at age 10. “I can trace it back to playing with Lego as a kid, I was always looking for that creative experience.
“I’m looking forward to working in the industry and using my lived experiences to improve accessibility. I want to reduce some of those challenges in their day to day lives so we can have a barrier free lifestyle for everybody.
“That’s kind of why I got into it.”
As a national team athlete for the past 10 years, the three-time Paralympian has seen it all when it comes to accessibility challenges. He’s happy to report that Canada stands out when it comes to recognizing the needs of people with a disability.
“I think Canada is one of the world leaders in that aspect,” he said. “As someone who has done a lot of travelling, I understand some things were built hundreds of years ago and back then it wasn’t something on their minds.
“In Canada, we have building codes that make sure that after a certain year, buildings are accessible. That reduces a lot of those challenges.”
The theme this year for International Day of Persons with Disabilities is the role of innovation in fuelling an accessible, inclusive, and equitable world.
“I think it’s fantastic seeing the advances in technology and in prosthetics,” he said. “It brings a better quality of life whether it would be more mechanical needs or higher prosthetics needs, people are able to get around more independently.
“It’s pretty cool to see.”
As a future architect he says the key will be advanced planning.
“There are some cool new ways to improve accessibility,” said Madell. “The key is to have the accessibility in the design process from the very get go and not realize it’s missing later on. If that happens then it has been retrofitted which may affect the original design.”
As an athlete, Madell has seen innovations in all areas from more accessibility in gyms and arenas but in particular to the wheelchair for his sport.
“The innovation and adaptation in the chairs we use is more user friendly,” he said. “It is safer, designed for high performance and with safety features to prevent head injuries and concussion when we tip over.”
But not all is tulips and roses for people with a disability, particularly when it comes to situations when outside assistance is required. Madell would like workers who handle adaptive equipment be first better trained and then be more sensitive to the equipment they are dealing with.
“I hear countless horror stories of how chairs get damaged,” he said. “Damage to a wheelchair or power chair can be life changing for a person for many months on end. I had a rugby chair broken in February and I didn’t get it replaced until October.
“It’s something we need to be more conscious of.”
With International Day of Persons with Disabilities set for Saturday, Madell says the themes for the day are universal.
“I think this day is about a group effort of everyone coming together trying to prove the importance of accessibility,” he said. “It’s not just for people who are disabled but also for somebody with a walker or pushing a stroller.
“You don’t have to have a disability. It’s just making the world a little more level for everybody.”