By Matthew Le Blanc.
How a quadriplegic did not let disability stop him from living his life and achieving his dreams
Drew Cumpson is a motivational speaker, hospitality entrepreneur, and disability activist. He suffered a spinal cord injury while travelling Peru in 2011 and since then has dedicated his time and efforts to improving the lives of those in the disability community.
Living with quadriplegia (Drew’s documentary) is not easy, but Drew inspires all those around him with his charisma, smile, and endless positivity. He doesn’t let his disability stop him from doing what he is passionate about and what makes him happy.
His motto, “Keep Fighting, Keep Smiling, Stay Strong,” serves as a constant reminder that anyone can achieve what they put their mind to.
Here’s our interview on overcoming disability with Drew Cumpson.
Drew, what are you doing currently in terms of activism and work?
I am working for a food truck / manufacturing company in Napanee, which is nice, because it’s only 15 minutes from home. The company I work for has been excellent in removing any barriers in my work environment, ensuring I have everything I need to be successful.
Trying to find a job with a severe disability when I am unable to move anything below my shoulders was difficult, but that did not stop me from trying to get a job in my field of study.
My activism focuses on trying to create a barrier-free world. I’ve started my own consultant business called H&D (Hospitality & Disability Consulting. I started this business for people with disabilities, as I found it very difficult to find information about stuff offered to people with disabilities.
What motivated these pursuits?
I have always been someone who does not like to sit still and I’ve worked my whole life for everything that I have. I push forward and don’t let anything stop me and if I am told that I am unable to do something, I will always find a way to complete the task at hand.
People feel that when they have a disability they are not able to do stuff; I make sure that I showcase that stuff can be done. I have a passion for helping others and would like to educate people that even if you have a disability, your life is not over.
The services I provide insight in are disability and school, disability and travel, restaurant accessibility, hotel accessibility, and anything related to disability.
Can you tell me about your accident and some of the adversity that you’ve faced during and since?
I don’t remember exactly what happened. All I remember is the morning of the accident, going to the community and then going to the beach. From then on, I don’t remember a single thing. I don’t remember the week and a half or so after the accident.
I didn’t know what happened until my friends told me. I had no memory or recollection of it. Just in general, the struggles with it being a developing country where the accident happened. There wasn’t the proper care taken, I was transported from the beach to a clinic in the back of a police car.
Things are probably worse than they could’ve been, but you never know. It’s always a game, like a coin flip when it comes to that – one thing could do something good, and one thing could do something bad.
I stayed in Peru for four days after the accident in an ICU unit before being airlifted back to Canada. I spent the next 51 months in the hospital.
I struggled a little bit in the beginning when it came to my mental health. I didn’t have too much of an issue when it came to accepting what had happened. I knew that it was a fluke accident. It could’ve happened to anyone, and it has happened to many other people. I know a couple of people in the same situation. There was no real way to avoid it. Knowing that helped me with my thought process after the accident.
Yes, I was a bit angry at the beginning, but once I kind of thought about it more and more, it just became a little easier. I knew there was nothing I could’ve done and that helped me to not have an angry outlook on life after the accident because I knew it wasn’t my fault. That allowed me to overcome a lot of the issues I had with the accident and injury. Knowing that this has happened to other people made a big difference on my outlook.
What do you think was the hardest thing throughout that process?
The hardest thing was knowing that I had spent 20 years planning my life for a bright future, with plans of travelling and working around the world. I had planned my life, I had known where I was going and what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be when I finished school. Those plans were already made. With the accident, that all had to change.
I couldn’t do the same things that I was doing. It was hard to conceptualize what life was going to look like – it is totally different. I have no privacy. I have someone with me 24/7 because of the ventilator. This is hard because I was a very independent person, and I still want to be that person and I have tried my best.
I must depend on someone for everything from brushing my teeth, to feeding me, and all personal hygiene and care. Relying on someone to do something all the time makes it a little difficult. I just wish I could do it myself. I value my independence and try to get some time to myself now and then.
Over the course of your recovery, what lessons have you learned that have lead you to become who you are as a person now, in terms of either work, your activism, or just as a person in general?
Over my recovery, I’ve learned quite a bit from my friends, family, and strangers. I would not be where I am today at all if it was not for the support I have received. This is probably the biggest thing that has gotten me through everything, as I am not able to do this alone. They have been by my side no matter the situation and have supported me in all of my endeavors in life.
Recovery was not easy. I had a lot of battles with health problems in the beginning and I was very sick and unstable in the first couple of months. I still have issues today; I am in and out of ICU with stomach, blood pressure, and pain issues. It’s been a long road, but I have learned how my body reacts and how it works when something is going wrong.
I never had any inclination to learn about human biology, but have learned so much, especially about human anatomy and spinal cord injuries.
How did you use your accident as inspiration to help other people?
Since my early days in ICU, my motto has always been “Keep Fighting, Keep Smiling, Stay Strong.” It was up on my hospital room wall and inspired me to push forward, giving me the momentum to keep going daily.
When it comes to activism and helping others with disabilities, I started a group mainly for people who have suffered a spinal cord injury from Kingston (Ontario). We get together a couple of times a year to catch up and talk about anything we are experiencing or going through.
The nice thing is that we are all at different stages in our recovery process. We can ask each other questions like how did you deal “with this” and motivate each other to be successful in life and how to fit into the community. We surround ourselves with people who are positive. I am a very positive and optimistic person and I try not to let much get in my way.
Back in 2014-15, I was trying to get my diaphragmatic pacemaker paid for, as the procedure was not accepted in the Canadian healthcare system. The cost of this procedure is approximately $37,000 and can decrease the overall cost of a person living in the community as it allows for patients to get off the ventilator.
I had tried to get in contact with the Ministry because the procedure is supposed to be covered but they did not respond to me. It was only when I got CTV News involved that I received a response from the Ministry. I went to Toronto for my pre-op testing and spoke with my surgeon, and we decided to postpone the surgery until we could get it covered.
I received a call the following week about my surgery and that the University Health Network (UHN) would cover my surgery. The UHN had a surplus in their budget and their fiscal year was ending at the end of March. They used part of this surplus to cover my surgery costs. The surgeon and I decided that we were going to put a proposal together for the Ministry regarding having the surgery covered for patients in need. Since my procedure, there have been a number of other surgeries completed that have been fully funded due to this proposal.
When they went in and did the surgery, my diaphragm only fired on the one side – it had atrophied too much. If this surgery would have occurred in the short time after the accident I would possibly be breathing on my own now. It was still a big win for people with disabilities. Now that it’s covered, it makes it easier for people to get the surgery.
Is hospitality something you’ve always been interested in and what obstacles did you have to overcome for the completion of your degree?
I’ve always been interested in hospitality. I took cooking courses in high school and would make dinner for my family growing up; food has always been my passion. I majored in hospitality because I have always been a people person and I knew that a business degree had a lot of work opportunities.
I chose the University of Guelph for the co-op option. I had a co-op lined up in Toronto and was supposed to start after Peru. I had moved into an apartment in Toronto and was ready to begin the next chapter of my life, but unfortunately, life had different plans for me.
The University of Guelph was amazing. They had a great support system for everything and accommodated anything I needed. In January of 2012, the student council held a fundraiser to cover the cost of my wheelchair.
The support from the university, businesses, hotels, and restaurants and everyone involved was amazing. It was crazy to know that at Guelph, I was not just a number.
The university was amazing at accommodating me for exams as well. A proctor from the university would come and allow me to write my exams comfortably, instead of having to try to go to a room with my wheelchair with 40 people there. I had a tutor come in once a week and do some note-taking.
When I got to the point where I could not take any more of my courses online, my advisor worked with me to use Skype for my lectures and classes. I got paired up with a girl named Lauren who would take in-class notes for me. She helped me all the way through my last two years of school. Having a consistent person taking notes made things much easier, she was taking the course, so her notes were very thorough.
At Guelph, my program has one full credit course that all hospitality and nutrition students must take. I took this course in the fall of 2014 and would drive up to Guelph every other Friday for the day. These were very long days as I would get up in the hospital at 5:30 am and we would drive to Guelph for 10:30 am for my restaurant lab.
University was difficult but it was doable with their support. I graduated from the University of Guelph on June 13th, 2016. This was a long process but the university worked with me to ensure I could finish my degree from a distance.
What is your philosophy about the phrase, “fall seven times, rise up eight,” alluding to wisdom for others in situations similar to yours and your own personal motto.
I’ve been knocked down more than seven times and I always get back up and continue living my life. Everything was good up until my accident. I had my life planned, I knew exactly where I was going, and then it all changed.
The accident was very difficult to overcome because recovery was not possible. It has just been one long ‘knock down’ but I have learned how to live my life to the fullest.
I always look at it in a positive perspective. I look at my situation and say, “This happened, what can I do next? What is my next step in life?” For me, this quote means continuing to grow as a person and focusing on learning as much as I can when it comes to a spinal cord injury.
I try my best to help others in similar situations as I know how scary it can be in the very beginning. I was brought into a community that is very accepting and where you can really learn from each other. That was the big thing – I had no idea what life was going to be like or how I was going to live. I was trying to figure out ways to overcome different challenges in my life. Having a person who you can talk to and tell you that “you’ll get through this”, from other people who have been there before, really helped me grow as a person.
It was difficult for me as well because after starting back to school my mom was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in July 2013. This time was very difficult for me, I had a lot of struggles with it, mainly mentally. My mom had been by my side through everything, she had helped me pursue my goals and dreams.
Both my parents allowed me to do what I was planning on doing in life. They didn’t hold me back, they supported everything that I was doing. My mom had been by my side at the hospital bed for 10 months, pretty much every day. It was very difficult, we were very close. That was another really difficult time in my life.
My issue is that I don’t express my feelings very well, and it all just builds up in me. There is typically one or two days a year where I will have a breakdown. It usually happens at night because I’m lying there with my thoughts swirling around in my head and that usually leads to some sort of breakdown. It rarely happens, but it’s difficult and I try to remain strong.
I don’t let my disability stop me from living life. I still love to travel and it hasn’t really stopped me from doing that. I set a goal three days prior to my accident while I was at the summit of Machu Picchu that I would travel to all seven wonders. I have checked off two of the seven and plan to continue to complete this goal. I went to Chichen Itza in Mexico in February 2016. Travelling with a disability is not easy or cheap and one of its expensive aspects is transportation.
Living with a disability is not cheap and if you are able to put the word medical on it, you can jack the price through the roof. Living at home costs me $225,000 a year for my attendants, my supplies, and bills for the house. There is no wonder why there are so many homeless people with disabilities.
Where is your next destination?
I’m not sure. Either India or Egypt. But right now, I just want to stay in Canada for a bit. I’m headed to Vancouver in June.
What’s your motto?
My main motto since day one was “Keep Fighting, Keep Smiling, Stay Strong.”
That was up on my hospital room wall. It was something I could look at and know that it does get better. There were points where I did not want to live because I did not know how my life was going to look like, thinking I would have no quality of life.
The motto being on my wall was a constant reminder that I have a lot that I can still do. I have a strong family and support system that are there to help me no matter what. I think the main thing with this motto is that it was something that always brightened my day. It lifted my spirits because I knew that I could still live life and not let it affect me in the way that I have seen it affect others.
With “Live Life to the Fullest,” it is just a way for me to say that I’m not just a person with a disability. I am a person who lives my life just like I would have been doing if I had not had this accident. I don’t let my disability stop me from living my life because there are ways around that. People always say, “that’s amazing that you’re able to do that,” and I say “you just have to put your mind and energy into it and make sure you plan, and you can do it.”
I set a main goal of graduating from university and successfully completed it. After graduation, I started searching for employment which was not an easy task as someone who is not able to move anything from the shoulders down.
One struggle that I had when searching for a job was when was the appropriate time to tell the employer about my disability. I was able to find a job in my field of study only a short four months after graduation.
It’s setting those goals and showcasing your ability. You just have to push forward and make sure you go about it in the right way. I want to showcase to as many people that yes, I may be disabled, but I can still do everything that a normal person would do- things I was doing before my accident, like going to concerts, dinner, and the movies.
I don’t let my disability stop me from doing it. I just have to make sure I plan and figure out exactly how things are going to go. I make sure that I have a goal at the end, and then plan the steps to get to that goal.
Special thanks to Drew for sharing his life-changing experience with us. His story is a reminder that no matter your situation, you remain the master of your life.
Life can change quickly, as it did for Drew, but it didn’t stop him from chasing his dreams. All it takes is dedication, perseverance, and positivity to live your life to the fullest.
Let this story inspire you and remember that you can fall down seven times, but you can rise up eight.