Where others may have let their disability get in their way, Marlin Styner made it his life’s work to improve and better accessibility for everyone.
The 51-year-old Red Deer native died Friday at the Carewest Dr. Vernon Fanning Centre in Calgary. When he was 18 he was involved in a car crash that left him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.
Friends and family remember him as a tireless champion of accessibility with a brilliant mind and a diplomatic voice for inclusion.
“What got me was when he said a person in a wheelchair is just that, a person. They’re just in a wheelchair, we have the same hopes, dreams, fears and desires as everyone else,” said Diane Gramlich, Styner’s widow.
Gramlich and Styner met at the fundraiser for the survivors of the Pine Lake tornado on Sept. 2, 2000.
“We hung out, did stuff, but we weren’t dating. I wasn’t dating a man in a wheelchair, I wasn’t interested in that,” said Gramlich. “But four months after I said ‘I’m not dating you,’ I asked him to marry me.”
Styner said yes and the two were married on June 1, 2002.
“He always thought before they spoke and he spoke so well,” said Gramlich. “He was very eloquent, thoughtful and smart.
“He had a brilliant mind and he remembered everything. If he wasn’t in that wheelchair some other lucky woman would have scooped him up 25 years ago, but I took the step.”
After 27 months in Red Deer hospital or the intensive care unit, he went to the Fanning Centre, the only place that could accommodate his care needs.
“We always maintained hope,” said Gramlich. “He could have lasted another 20 years, 20 months, 20 days or 20 minutes and he just didn’t wake up on Friday. “When I left him on Thursday evening he was fine.”
He worked with the Red Deer chapter of the Canadian Paraplegic Association in community development, government relations and advocacy.
“He was a giant of a man in terms of what he did with his life after his injury,” said Teren Clarke, Canadian Paraplegic Association Alberta chapter executive director. “Many people who face a catastrophic injury like that let the injury define them and Marlin didn’t, he chose to let his life journey define him.”
She said his work had a lasting impact on the Canadian Paraplegic Association.
“Marlin really pioneered the concept of community development,” said Clarke. “We really built a whole program around Marlin’s success in Red Deer.”
In his time in Red Deer working as a community development co-ordinator Marlin set out to look at how the city could be more wheelchair accessible.
“In a lot of communities now we have people like Marlin who work to identify barrier, environmental and attitude barriers that prevent people from fully participating as citizens,” said Clarke.
“That was based on the pilot work Marlin did in Red Deer.”
At one time he ran to be the Progressive Conservative candidate in the Red Deer-South riding. He lost to current MLA Cal Dallas.
Styner was appointed to the Alberta Premier’s Council on the Status of Persons with Disabilities in 2005 and was chair from 2008 to 2011. It was there that he crossed paths regularly with Red Deer-North MLA Mary Anne Jablonski, who at the time was the minister of seniors and community supports.
“He was an inspiration,” said Jablonski. “He never allowed his disability to be a barrier to pursuing excellence.”
Former Red Deer mayor Morris Flewwelling said Styner once went to Red Deer city council and gave a presentation on how the city could improve its accessibility for people confined to wheelchairs.
Styner worked with the city’s planning department to develop a checklist of ways to make new developments and re-developments handicapped accessible.
“He spoke so eloquently,” said Gramlich. “He knew how to talk to people and they were always interested. He didn’t talk about facts and figures and boring stuff, he’d tell a story. A fabulous story teller, you tell people a story and it means more, much more.
Flewwelling said he admired Styner and how after the crash that gave Styner his disability “he just continued to use that brain of his and that will to help other people.”
“He was dedicated to improving the lot of people with disabilities and making sure they have maximum access and mobility,” said Flewwelling.
Both Flewwelling and Jablonski talked about Styner’s work for accessibility and visitability.
“I have eight steps going up to my front door and he (Styner) said ‘I can’t visit you Mary Anne. You need to have visitability,’” said Jablonski. “He taught many people about the importance of these two things. He strove for equality of all people whether they had a disability or not.”
“We didn’t have a ramp and we have five steps at the front of our house,” said Flewwelling. “One time I said to him we can entertain in the backyard, then I realized to get into our backyard you had to go through the garage door and go up three steps just to get into the backyard.
“He wanted to make sure that when people were building residential structures they would provide, as much as they could, ground level entry and wide doors.”
The premier’s council Styner served on named an award in his honour, one of three the council on the status of persons with disabilities gives out. The Marlin Styner achievement award is awarded to an Albertan with a disability and through their personal or professional achievements have brought greater recognition to the abilities of all persons with disabilities.
“He lived a very full life and I was so lucky to be along the ride with him for the last 13 and a half years,” said Gramlich. “I always maintained hope that we’d have another day and we were thankful for everyday we had and hopeful for another day.