Christine Selinger; Bangor, Maine; @cbselinger
Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?
I’m an educator at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. (I used to work in the Toronto office, but now I work remotely as my husband and I recently relocated to Maine.) I create online, collaborative learning opportunities for adults with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. What I try to do is to help people with newly-acquired disabilities adjust to the changes they will undergo by passing on the knowledge and skills that our community has gained.
The topic that has really struck a chord within the community is the resources I have created around sex and disability. I’m not sure that I realized how little credible information is out there for people with disabilities, and just how needed that information is. We’ve had people from around the world reach out to say how much they appreciated the information and to ask for assistance in creating other programs for people with disabilities.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I went to the University of Regina and I graduated in 2011 with a bachelor of science in mathematics and a bachelor of education.
What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)
My first job completely out of university was working as a receptionist/administrator at at a realty in Regina. I was only there for a couple months before I started with what was then called the Canadian Paraplegic Association Saskatchewan.
What was your BIG break? How did you land it?
I suppose when I broke my back would have been my BIG break and I definitely did not stick the landing (pun definitely intended). Honestly, there are so many times I have jumped on opportunities that have led me down incredible paths in my life.
I sustained my spinal cord injury when I was 19. I was rappelling with my sister when I fell about 10 feet and shattered my L1 vertebrae. The break resulted in an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning that I have some sensation and movement below the level of my injury but I can’t use my legs in the same way I used to and I use a wheelchair for my mobility. My life entirely changed after that injury—but what I really want to highlight is that it did not make my life worse. In fact, I think it made me a more patient and compassionate person. There has been a tendency in the media to paint life with a disability in an incredibly negative light, but realistically it’s not like that. While there are most definitely really frustrating moments, those frustrations typically have to do more with society’s perception that having a disability is pitiful rather than anything that has to do with my abilities.
After sustaining my SCI, I was keen to rediscover myself. I went back to school, and I enrolled in a double-degree program. I found two new jobs and I tried every sport I could get my hands on. Participating in ParaSport was an amazing opportunity to meet and get to know other people with disabilities who were as keen to share their experiences as I was to learn from them: from how to look after my physical health, to how to travel on an airplane, and to how to change a tire tube. It was in my foray into paddling (canoe and kayak) that I found a first taste of athletic success. I did well competing at National Championships in 2008, and progressed through the sport to become the first-ever World Champion in Women’s V1 in 2010. I had never even dreamed of being athletic, let alone set goals to be on the National team or to have a chance to set a world record. My brain refused to process the fact that the Canadian anthem was playing and the flag was being raised because of something I had done. I was pretty sure it was just a fluke. But then I broke that record and set it again in 2011, and I finally allowed myself to think, “Maybe you’re OK at this.”
I moved to Toronto in 2011 with my boyfriend (now husband) who was going to grad school at the University of Toronto. There, I had an immense amount of trouble finding a job. Almost all of the interviews I got were for places that were not wheelchair accessible; I was appalled at how bad the accessibility in Toronto is. It wasn’t until the middle of December (I moved in August) that I was offered a job two days a week at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. I supplemented that with a position [tutoring math] and was able to make ends meet—but just barely. I had emptied my savings accounts while job hunting and was pretty much living cheque-to-cheque. This meant that something had to give, so I “retired” from paddling after the 2012 season ended.
I eventually secured a full-time permanent position with Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. This allowed me to use my expertise as a teacher, facilitator and public speaker in my everyday work. The little bit of computer science and design work I had done as a part of my science degree really came in to play as I took online courses through the University of Calgary to be an instructional designer.
Talking about sex is something that evolved quite naturally. The first role I had at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario was that of a peer support coordinator, so I had the opportunity to meet hundreds of people with newly acquired SCIs. Sex was something that was either asked right upfront or entirely ignored because of a general awkwardness. I did research to make sure that my own experiences weren’t outlying. I also wanted to address the topic for the general public so I could stop fielding really strange—and sometimes awkward questions—about my own sex life.
Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?
Has that happened? I’m not sure that I’ll ever really feel like that. Looking at the political landscape of the world right now, and with my life experience, I’m acutely aware that everything can change in a flash so I’ve made a point of enjoying every part of the journey. For me, it’s more of a feeling of, I’m so glad that someone is finding this useful, and maybe a little, What can I do next?
Certainly, after I was interviewed by Monica Heisey for the Broadly article, “How People with Disabilities Have Sex,” the sex and disability side of my work became big. Suddenly, I was getting emails and phone calls from people around the world. The response was astounding and really highlighted the need for more work in that area.
What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?
Growing up I knew that I wanted to help make the world a better place and I unequivocally knew that the people who do this are teachers. I wanted to be one of those people.
Name one piece of career advice you always give.
Be yourself. Faking it is exhausting and it doesn’t get you anywhere.
What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?
I don’t know if this counts as career advice, but I was told that I would never get another job if I talked about sex in public.
I was also once told that I smile too much, so I can’t be taken seriously. I’m a happy person; that doesn’t reflect poorly on me. I think if it bothers you than it says more about who you are as a person.
Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?
I’ve definitely experienced barriers, those the most easily identifiable barriers have more to do with my disability than my gender. Some examples: I had arranged for an interview with a tutoring agency in Toronto before I moved here. The owner and I had corresponded several times before I left. Jerrod, my husband, accompanied me to the interview and intended to meet up with me afterward so that we could go out for dinner. I arrived at the building and was unable to find an elevator. I called Jerrod and he came and ran up to the third floor to ask about an elevator, to which the owner told him there wasn’t one. Jerrod explained that I was waiting downstairs if she wanted to speak with me, but she made a curt, “Well she can’t work here anyway” comment and closed the door in Jerrod’s face. I once also interviewed over the phone for a casual position teaching at a private school, which I was offered at the end of the interview. Then I asked about wheelchair accessibility to which the interviewer replied he’d “have to get back to me.” He never got back to me.
Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it?
The eLearning Guild does a salary review every year and based on what I do and my title, the short answer is no (compared to those averages). But there are, or could be, a lot of reasons for that. Most obviously is that I work for a non-for-profit. I’m also fairly new to my career.
As an aside here, though, I would like to note that though I cannot identify with a gender gap in my own career path thus far, I am very aware that one exists—as does an immense gap for people with disabilities. Knowing this means I am constantly aware that I may face significant challenges should I change careers, or even change where I work.
As I spoke about earlier, I also privately tutor in the evenings for some extra cash, and I’m currently investigating options for writing a book on sex and disability.
What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?
Oh man. I’m not sure that this is a stereotype but more of an observation. I find two things really difficult to wrap my mind around.
One: the idea that millennials exist in a vacuum. Like somehow, we developed out of nowhere. Reality is that this generation is a natural evolution of the one before us. The “kids these days” saying has been around for a very long time… but the reality is that kids don’t develop on their own; they learn from their experiences with previous generations and build from that. That’s not something to be ashamed of, it’s just the next iteration in societal development.
Two: the suggestion that being a millennial is a bad thing. Your age defines your generation, so regardless of what you do, you’ll always be one—but it’s become a dirty word. Why would we want to define an entire generation as being inherently negative?