Overcoming the odds

Dal alumna reflects on teaching career and changes in the world of accessibility

The ramp up to Shirreff Hall hasn’t always existed.  

In fact, when Deanna Gilholm attended Dalhousie University in the 1960s, her friends had to carry her and her wheelchair up the steps. Dalhousie campus wasn’t, and still isn’t entirely, built with disabled people in mind.  

Deanna is paraplegic, experiencing paralysis from the legs down, and has been since she was hit by a car in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia when she was 13 years old. She says her son, Christopher Gilholm, thinks she might be the first paraplegic graduate of Dalhousie’s education program.  

Although Deanna can’t say for sure if this is true, she says the ’60s “was certainly early for anyone in a wheelchair to probably want to do that type of work.” 

A vision of accessibility and helping students have been a huge part of Deanna’s career. But so has determination and a deeply rooted passion for teaching. 

Deanna Gilholm, a Dalhousie University alumna, has a teaching career that has spanned over 40 years. Her son, Christopher Gilholm thinks she may be the first paraplegic graduate of Dalhousie’s education program. (Photos provided by Deanna and Christopher Gilholm)

A love for teaching 

When asked to describe his mother, Christopher immediately says she is “extremely dedicated to teaching and she’s wanted to do that ever since she was very young.”  

His mother agrees. Deanna says her passion for teaching goes “back to [her] early teenage years.” 

When she first inquired about becoming an educator, someone close to Deanna told her she could never be a teacher due to her disability. 

“It was a difficult time for me then,” she says. “But I kind of refuted that and after I finished my degree, I was able to get into that [teaching] program.”  

Deanna first earned a bachelor of arts from Dal and then began pursuing her bachelor of education. She says Dal was very supportive and worked to accommodate her in every way. With love and support from her friends and family, particularly her parents, Deanna graduated from Dal with a bachelor of education in 1968. She’s been teaching ever since. 

Deanna taught for five years at Ellenvale Junior High School in Dartmouth, N.S. before getting married and staying home to raise her two children, Christopher and Allyson.  

Deanna returned to work several years later to teach at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). Christopher fondly recalls those years when his mother first started at NSCC. 

“If I wasn’t doing my own homework,” Christopher says, “I would get lessons and help from her, so that was extremely helpful to me.”  

Deanna has taught at NSCC since 1981 (almost 40 years now) and has no intention of stopping, even with the ongoing pandemic. When asked if she thinks she’s prepared for the challenges of the school year, Deanna laughs. Despite its challenges, Deanna says she has the determination to continue with online learning even when she says to herself, “I just can’t do this.” 

A new landscape? 

When Deanna decided to be a teacher, the possibilities for people with physical disabilities were much more limited than they are today.  

“People in wheelchairs weren’t that visible, not like you see today with all the different opportunities and outreach that people have made,” Deanna says. “In that sense, I feel like I was a trailblazer to be able to prove that I could do a job and do it well with the physical limitations that I had.” 

When asked if after all this time the world has opened up for people with physical disabilities, Deanna has some crucial insights.  

“Physical accessibility is still a challenge in a lot of places,” she says. “I don’t know if that’ll ever be perfected because those of us even with the same type of physical disability manage things in different ways.”  

Deanna has been back to Dal since her days as a student, and she’s happy with some of the changes to campus buildings.  

“It was nice to be able to get into Shirreff Hall via a ramp,” she says, “rather than somebody taking me up the steps.” 

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